Codification Division Publications: Diplomatic Conferences Codification Division Publications: Diplomatic Conferences

United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea

(Geneva, 24 February — 27 April 1958)

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At its first session, in 1949, the International Law Commission selected both the regime of the territorial waters and that of the high seas as topics for codification. The Commission appointed Mr. François, as a Special Rapporteur for the topic of the high seas in 1949, and subsequently extended his mandate to include also the topic of the territorial sea. The topics were considered by the Commission at its second to eighth sessions, from 1950 to 1956 respectively, on the basis of the reports of the Special Rapporteur, information provided by Governments and International Organizations, as well as documents prepared by the Secretariat. Final drafts with regard to the continental shelf, fisheries and the contiguous zone were submitted by the Commission to the General Assembly at its fifth session, in 1953. In 1956, the Commission adopted its final report on the territorial sea. At the same session, all the draft articles concerning the law of the sea were included in a single systematic body as to constitute a final draft on the law of the sea.

Following the discussion of the report of the International Law Commission on the work of its eighth session (A/CN.4/104), the General Assembly adopted resolution 1105 (XI) of 21 February 1957, by which it decided to convene the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in Geneva from 24 February to 27 April of 1958. Eighty-six states participated in the conference.

In accordance with the above-mentioned resolution, the mandate of the Conference was to examine the law of the sea, taking account not only of the legal but also of the technical, biological, economic and political aspects of the problem, and to embody the results of its work in one or more conventions or other appropriate instruments. 

Four separate conventions were adopted by the Conference on 29 April 1958 and were opened for signature until 31 October 1958, and thereafter opened for accession by all Member States of the United Nations, as well as other States and specialized agencies invited by the General Assembly to become party to: the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone (entered into force on 10 September 1964); the Convention on the High Seas (entered into force on 30 September 1962); the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas (entered into force on 20 March 1966), and the Convention on the Continental Shelf (entered into force on 10 June 1964). In addition, an Optional Protocol of Signature Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes was adopted, which entered into force on 30 September 1962.

The Conference also adopted the following resolutions: Nuclear tests on the high seas, Pollution of the high seas by radio-active materials, International fishery conservation conventions, Co-operation in conservation measures, Humane killing of marine life, Special situations relating to coastal fisheries, Régime of historic waters, Convening of a second United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, and Tribute to the International Law Commission.

See: Introductory Note.

A second conference was held in 1960 to consider the topics which had not been agreed upon at the 1958 Conference. A third conference was held from 1973 to 1982, resulting in the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has superceded, for those States party to it, the four conventions adopted in 1958.