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Participation of Colombia in the United Nations During the Period 1945-1995

Chapter VII:

Conferences on the Law of the Sea


First Conference

The United Nations convened the First Conference on the Law of the Sea in Geneva in 1958. Colombia's delegates to this Conference were José Joaquín Caicedo Castilla and Juan Uribe Holguín, both former Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

Four conventions were signed during the course of the Conference, the projects for which had been prepared by the UN Legal Committee, i.e.

1. The Convention on Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone.

No agreement was reached there as to the extension of territorial waters, which therefore countries had been establishing within their national legislations. Initially it was 3 miles, which corresponded to the distance covered by a cannon, since it was said that the power of the land went as far as the force of arms could reach ("potestas terrae finitur ubi finitur armorum vis"). Some countries had already extended out to 12 miles.

The measurement of territorial waters was regulated by means of straight base lines. The topic of vessels right to innocent passage was discussed. Procedures were defined for marking boundaries between territorial waters corresponding to countries with adjacent or coasts facing each other, by means of a median or equidistant line, except when special circumstances of historical rights justify some other boundary. Islands were defined as natural extensions of land, surrounded by water that lie above the sea´s level on high seas.

The conventions on Territorial Waters and Maritime Platforms recognize the maritime area of islands.

Regulations concerning inland waters was also established, including legal bays and the existence of historical bays.

2. Convention on Continental Platform.

The platform is defined as the bed and subsoil of the underwater zones adjacent to the coasts of a State, but outside its territorial waters, up to a depth of 200 meters or farther out than this limit up to where the depth of waters allows exploitations of resources.

Coastal states exercise jurisdiction over the exploitation of natural resources, such as mineral as well as other non-living resources, and over living resources belonging to sedentary species found on the Platform or in contact with it. Systems for defining platform boundaries between countries with adjacent or facing coasts were provided for, by agreement of the parties or by a median or equidistant line, except under especial circumstances that justify some other boundary.

Basic rules on boundaries are equivalent in the two conventions on Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone and on Platforms and contain a general rule: agreement of the parties; median or equidistant line, special circumstances that justify another decision. However, there are different shades, according to whether it is a case of territorial waters or overlying platforms, and whether it is a case of facing coastlines (median line) or adjacent coasts (equidistant).

3. Convention on the High Seas.

This convention regulates free navigation on High Seas, free fishing, the right to lay cables and underwater pipelines and the right to fly over high seas. Nationality of vessels and pirating is regulated.

4. Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources on the High Seas.

This Convention regulates matters related to fishing and conservation of resources. Its particularity consists of the manner in which parties settle controversies on issues regulated herein, at the request of either of the parties, by a Commission of five members appointed by mutual agreement between the parties or , in the absence of agreement, by the Secretary General of the United Nations in consultation with the parties and with the President of the International Court of Justice and the Director of the FAO.

Colombia ratified the Conventions on Platforms and Fishing. However, it has failed to do the same with the Conventions on Territorial Waters and High Seas. Some countries, such as France and Venezuela, expressed some reservations with respect to articles dealing with boundary setting: 12 and VI respectively of the Territorial Waters and Platform Conventions.

Second Conference

In 1960 a Second Conference was held on the Law of the Sea in Geneva, dealing principally with Territorial Waters. Due to the lack of one vote, international recognition was not given to a statement that territorial waters must not exceed 12 miles from shore.

Third Conference

Later, during the seventies, the UN held a third large conference on Law of the Sea. It was preceded by a large number of meetings and decisions by countries, such as a claim to a 200 mile limit for territorial waters by the South Pacific countries. Additionally, there were meetings by countries of several regions. Latin Americans met in Mexico and Santo Domingo, and proposed the creation of a 200 mile zone classified as an economic zone, called by some the epicontinental zone, instead of 200 miles of territorial waters.

Conference meetings, both preparatory and negotiation meetings, lasted almost ten years, and were attended by renowned personages and distinguished attorneys.

The Conference ended in the signing of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea at Montego Bay on December 10, 1982.

Although, signing of the Convention had been programmed for Caracas, Venezuela, this country withdrew its offer as site and voted against the Convention due to disagreement with several of its provisions. The United States, Israel and Turkey did the same. There were numerous abstentions including the German Federal Republic, Belgium, Spain and Soviet Union, in addition to several pro-Communist states.

The Secretary of the Third Maritime Conference was the eminent Colombian legalist and bemoaned attorney, Bernardo Zuleta Torres, as delegate of the Secretary General.

Acting on behalf of Colombia were Ambassadors Germán Zea Hernández, Antonio José Uribe and Hector Charry Samper. Within the delegation, Ambassador José Joaquín Gori gave a brilliant performance.

The Conference established fundamental reforms in the Law of the Sea, in a single Convention (instead of the four of 1958 in Geneva).

It is impossible to summarize this extensive Convention, containing 320 articles, in addition to vast annexes on the Commission on Continental Platform Boundaries, Enterprise Law, conciliation procedures, the International Court of Maritime Law, Arbitration, Special Arbitration and Participation of International Organizations. However, we will mention some topics of interest.

Territorial Waters

Boundary lines between territorial waters are governed by a provision analogous to Article 12 of the 1958 Convention: agreement between the parties, median line, exception for special circumstances and historical rights.

In Article 3 the extent of territorial waters is finally defined as not to exceed 12 miles, measured from the base lines. The drawing of base lines is also regulated.

Further regulation of inland waters is established: those between base lines and coastlines, those of inlets and bays (legal) the mouths of which do not exceed 24 miles. The existence of historical bays is respected. The innocent passage of vessels (pertaining to Territorial Waters) is regulated, as well as jurisdiction aboard vessels, depending on whether they are merchant or war ships.

Contiguous zones are regulated, as well as governance of straits. There are numerous provisions relating to island nations.

Exclusive Economic Zone

Organization of the exclusive economic zone is one of the Conventions great reforms. This zone has a with of 200 miles measured from the base lines, but exists only from territorial waters. Coastal states exercise sovereignty in the Exclusive Economic Zone for exploration, exploitation, conservation and administration of living and non-living resources in waters overlying the bed, and the bed itself and subsoil.

In contrast to territorial waters in which the coastal state exercises sovereignty over the zone, in the same manner it exercises sovereignty over its territory, with limitations such as innocent passage, in the case of the Platform and Exclusive Economic Zone, jurisdiction is exercised only over the exploitation of the resources on the platform, on the bed and in the subsoil. In the economic zone it is exercised over resources found in overlying waters, extending to the bed and subsoil, but sermingly this is applied only when the zone exceeds the platform.

The Shelf

The Convention basically modifies definition of the platform, given that it is extended to the outer edge of the continental border or up to a distance of 200 miles in cases in which the border does not reach that distance.

The continental border includes underwater prolongation of the continental mass of the coastal state and is made up of the bed and subsoil of the platform, the slope and continental immersion.

When the edge exceeds 200 miles, the coastal state will establish it and will inform the Continental Platform Border Commission. The Continental Shelve shall not extend beyond 350 miles from the base lines nor 120 miles from the isobathe (depth) of 2,500 meters, but does not include sea beds. The drawing of boundary lines of the shelves must be carried out through agreement of the parties, base on international law, in order to seek an equitable settlement. In the absence of an agreement, the procedure provided for in Part XV shall be applied.

Regulations governing islands were modified by withdrawing recognition of platform and exclusive economic zone for rocks with no population or independent economic life.

The Zone

The creation of the Zone (different from the Exclusive Economic Zone) is the other great reform of the Convention. The Zone includes sea beds. It states that the Zone and its resources are the common property of mankind, on behalf of which the Authority will act with headquarters in Jamaica.

The Authority is composed of an Assembly made up of all members; the Council formed by 36 members elected by the Assembly, as executive body, with two commissions, one for economic planning and another legal and technical one; and the Secretariat. The Enterprise also exists in order to carry out activities in the Zone, although they can also be carried out by the States in association with the Authority.

High seas are likewise regulated.

There are laws regarding the protection and preservation of the marine environment and scientific marine research.

The system for settlement of disputes is very complex; party states can accept several alternatives, such as the International Court of Maritime Law, the International Court of Justice, the arbitration or special arbitration courts regulated within the Convention. In any case, the fundamental fact is that there is always some obligatory jurisdiction for the settlement of disputes.

The convention does not allow any reservations to be formulated with respect to its articles. Due to this fact, several important countries voted against the Convention or abstained from voting.

Colombia, although a signatory of the Convention has yet to ratify it.

However, for all legal purposes, Law 12 of 1978 regulates the jurisdiction of the country over marine and underwater zones.


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