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Law of the Sea with special reference to Contiguous Zone


The ocean is vast, covering 140 million square miles, some 72 per cent of the earth's surface. Not only has the oceans always been a prime source of nourishment for the life it helped generate, but from earliest recorded history it has served for trade and commerce, adventure and discovery. It has kept people apart and brought them together.[1]

The law of the sea comprises the rules governing the use of the sea, including its resources and environment. The law of the sea is one of the principal subjects of international law and is a mixture of treaty and established or emerging customary law. The law of the sea covers rights, freedoms and obligations in areas such as shipping, territorial seas and waters and the high seas, fishing, wrecks and cultural heritage, protection of the marine environment and dispute settlement.[2] Much of the law regarding sea water is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed Dec. 10, 1982. The convention, described as a “constitution for the oceans,” represents an attempt to codify international law regarding territorial waters, sea-lanes, and ocean resources. It came into force in 1994 after it had been ratified by the requisite 60 countries; by the early 21st century the convention had been ratified by more than 150 countries.[3]

According to the 1982 convention, each country’s sovereign territorial waters extend to a maximum of 12 nautical miles (22 km) beyond its coast, but foreign vessels are granted the right of innocent passage through this zone. Passage is innocent as long as a ship refrains from engaging in certain prohibited activities, including weapons testing, spying, smuggling, serious pollution, fishing, or scientific research.Beyond its territorial waters, every coastal country may establish an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles (370 km) from shore. Within the EEZ the coastal state has the right to exploit and regulate fisheries, construct artificial islands and installations, use the zone for other economic purposes (e.g., the generation of energy from waves), and regulate scientific research by foreign vessels. Otherwise, foreign vessels (and aircraft) are entitled to move freely through (and over) the zone.

The Contiguous Zone

UNCLOS sections the oceans, splitting marine areas into five main zones, each with a different legal status: Internal Waters, Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the High Seas. It provides the backbone for offshore governance by coastal states and those navigating the oceans. It not only zones coastal states’ offshore areas but provides specific guidance for states’ rights and responsibilities in the five concentric zones.[4]

The Contiguous Zone is an intermediary zone between the territorial sea and the high seas extending enforcement jurisdiction of the coastal state to a maximum of 24 nautical miles from baselines for the purposes of  preventing or punishing violations of customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary (and thus residual national security) legislation.

In the maritime security context, this can certainly include monitoring any activities which can result in armed violence or weapons import into the state. Therefore the coastal state can take measures to prevent or regulate armed maritime security activities out to 24 nautical miles under the reasoning that it is undertaking customs enforcement operations to prevent movement of arms into its waters/ports.[5]

The limit of the contiguous zone was provided in the Geneva Convention of 1958. It was to extend 12 miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial zone is measured. Thus, the concept of contiguoug zone is meaningless for the states which had claimed the territorial sea upto twelve miles. They assimilated the limit of contiguo zone into territorial sea. The limit of contiguous zone has been extended by the convention of 1982 which provided under para2 of Article 33 that it may not extend beyond twenty-four nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. Thus, the area of contiguous zoe would be 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial sea.

Since UNCLOS has made the concept exclusive economic zones, the contiguous zone is no longer described as being a part of the high seas. Since Article 33 is permissive, and since indeed the contiguous zone is entirely in the area of the exclusive economic zone where such a zone is claimed, it is perhaps doubtful whether a stateis required to formally claim or proclaim a contiguous zone as precondition of the contiguous zone jurisdiction.[6]

India has claimed contiguous zone to the extent of twenty four nautical miles by enacting the Maritime Zone Act 1976. Section 5 of the Act envisages that the contiguous zone of India ‘is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial waters’ and that the zone extends to a line which is twenty four nautical miles of the coast. The above section also specifically recognized the competence of the Central Government to exercise such powers and take such measures as it may consider necessary, with respect to (a) the security of India, and (b) immigration, sanitation, customs and other fiscal matters.[7]


[1] “Oceans and the Law of the Sea” available at: visited on 4 July 2019)

[2] “Public International Law: Law of the Sea” available at: (Last visited on 4 July 2019)

[3]Robin R. Churchill, Law of the Sea, Encyclopedia Britannica, available at: (Last visited on 4 July 2019)

[4]“ Law of the Sea Mechanisms: Examining UNCLOS Maritime Zones” available at: (Last visited on 4 July 2019)

[5] Ibid

[6]Dr H.O. Aggarwal, International Law and Humar Rights 144 (Central Law Publication, 22nd edn.,2017).

[7]Id, p. 145


Submitted by Varun Ahuja

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