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Home / Bare Acts / Central Acts and Rules / International Laws and Conventions / International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

Introduction to ITLOS

ITLOS

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is an independent judicial body established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to adjudicate disputes arising out of the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal is composed of 21 independent members, elected from among persons enjoying the highest reputation for fairness and integrity and of recognized competence in the field of the law of the sea.

Jurisdiction

The Tribunal has jurisdiction over any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention, and over all matters specifically provided for in any other agreement which confers jurisdiction on the Tribunal (Statute, article 21). The Tribunal is open to States Parties to the Convention (i.e. States and international organisations which are parties to the Convention). It is also open to entities other than States Parties, i.e., States or intergovernmental organisations which are not parties to the Convention, and to state enterprises and private entities "in any case expressly provided for in Part XI or in any case submitted pursuant to any other agreement conferring jurisdiction on the Tribunal which is accepted by all the parties to that case" (Statute, article 20).

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was opened for signature at Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 10 December 1982. It entered into force 12 years later, on 16 November 1994. A subsequent Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI of the Convention was adopted on 28 July 1994 and entered into force on 28 July 1996. This Agreement and Part XI of the Convention are to be interpreted and applied together as a single instrument. 

The origins of the Convention date from 1 November 1967 when Ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for "an effective international regime over the seabed and the ocean floor beyond a clearly defined national jurisdiction". This led to the convening, in 1973, of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which after nine years of negotiations adopted the Convention. 

The Convention establishes a comprehensive legal framework to regulate all ocean space, its uses and resources. It contains, among other things,

  • provisions relating to the territorial sea,
  • the contiguous zone,
  • the continental shelf,
  • the exclusive economic zone and the high seas.

It also provides for the protection and preservation of the marine environment, for marine scientific research and for the development and transfer of marine technology. One of the most important parts of the Convention concerns the exploration for and exploitation of the resources of the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (the Area).

The Convention declares the Area and its resources to be "the common heritage of mankind". The International Seabed Authority, established by the Convention, administers the resources of the Area. 

Part XV of the Convention lays down a comprehensive system for the settlement of disputes that might arise with respect to the interpretation and application of the Convention. It requires States Parties to settle their disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention by peaceful means indicated in the Charter of the United Nations.

However, if parties to a dispute fail to reach a settlement by peaceful means of their own choice, they are obliged to resort to the compulsory dispute settlement procedures entailing binding decisions, subject to limitations and exceptions contained in the Convention.

The mechanism established by the Convention provides for four alternative means for the settlement of disputes:

International Laws and Regulations

  • the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea,
  • the International Court of Justice,
  • an arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VII to the Convention, and
  • a special arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VIII to the Convention. 

A State Party is free to choose one or more of these means by a written declaration to be made under article 287 of the Convention and deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations (declarations made by States Parties under article 287).

If the parties to a dispute have not accepted the same settlement procedure, the dispute may be submitted only to arbitration in accordance with Annex VII, unless the parties otherwise agree.

Pursuant to the provisions of its Statute, the Tribunal has formed the following Chambers: the Chamber of Summary Procedure, the Chamber for Fisheries Disputes, the Chamber for Marine Environment Disputes and the Chamber for Maritime Delimitation Disputes. 

At the request of the parties, the Tribunal has also formed special chambers to deal with the Case concerning the Conservation and Sustainable Exploitation of Swordfish Stocks in the South-Eastern Pacific Ocean (Chile/European Community) and the Dispute Concerning Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary between Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire in the Atlantic Ocean (Ghana/Côte d'Ivoire).

Disputes relating to activities in the International Seabed Area are submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the Tribunal, consisting of 11 judges. Any party to a dispute over which the Seabed Disputes Chamber has jurisdiction may request the Seabed Disputes Chamber to form an ad hoc chamber composed of three members of the Seabed Disputes Chamber. 

The Tribunal is open to States Parties to the Convention and, in certain cases, to entities other than States Parties (such as international organizations and natural or legal persons) (Access to the Tribunal). 

The jurisdiction of the Tribunal comprises all disputes submitted to it in accordance with the Convention. It also extends to all matters specifically provided for in any other agreement which confers jurisdiction on the Tribunal. To date, ten multilateral agreements have been concluded which confer jurisdiction on the Tribunal (relevant provisions of these agreements).

Unless the parties otherwise agree, the jurisdiction of the Tribunal is mandatory in cases relating to the prompt release of vessels and crews under article 292 of the Convention and to provisional measures pending the constitution of an arbitral tribunal under article 290, paragraph 5, of the Convention.

The Seabed Disputes Chamber is competent to give advisory opinions on legal questions arising within the scope of the activities of the International Seabed Authority. The Tribunal may also give advisory opinions in certain cases under international agreements related to the purposes of the Convention.

Disputes before the Tribunal are instituted either by written application or by notification of a special agreement. The procedure to be followed for the conduct of cases submitted to the Tribunal is defined in its Statute and Rules.

ITLOS Time Line

3 December 1973, New York

Opening of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, during which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is drafted. The conference is held in New York, Geneva and Caracas.

27 August 1974, Caracas

The informal working group formed to discuss all matters pertaining to the settlement of disputes which could arise out the application or interpretation of the Convention proposes three distinct mechanisms, i.e. arbitration, the International Court of Justice and a tribunal for the law of the sea in what was known as the 'Document of Caracas'.

22-23 March 1975, Geneva

The proposals for a three-fold mechanism for the settlement of disputes become known as the 'Montreux Formula' after a meeting of the informal working group in Montreux. 

May 1975, Geneva

After the third session, the President of the Conference submits to the delegations an informal single negotiating text on the settlement of disputes which contains a draft Statute of the Law of the Sea Tribunal, but also considers the creation of a tribunal to deal exclusively with activities in the Area, as an organ of the International Seabed Authority. 

1976, New York

The issue of the settlement of disputes is debated for the first time in the plenary of the Conference. The 'Montreux Formula' is adopted and the Conference opts for the creation of a single tribunal with a specialized chamber to deal with disputes relating to the Area.

15 July 1977, New York

The first consolidated text of the proposed Convention is presented, with the dispute settlement procedure accepted as an integral part of the Convention rather than an additional and optional protocol.

22 September 1980, New York

The name for the adjudicatory body created by the Convention is adopted: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

21 August 1981, New York

Hamburg is chosen as the seat of the Tribunal by the Conference.

10 December 1982Montego Bay

The Convention opens for signature.

15 March 1983, Kingston

The first meeting of the Preparatory Committee to discuss all issues pertaining to the concrete establishment and operation of the Tribunal.

16 November 1993, New York

Guyana deposits the 60th ratification of the Convention with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, allowing the Convention to enter into force twelve months later.

14 October 1994, New York

The Federal Republic of Germany accedes to the Convention.

16 November 1994, New York

The Convention enters into force.

22 November 1994, New York

The first Meeting of the Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention. The Parties agree to defer the first election of the members of the Tribunal to 1 August 1996.

1 August 1996, New York

The election of the first 21 Judges by the fifth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention.

5 October 1996, Hamburg

The Judges elect the first President of the Tribunal (Thomas A. Mensah of Ghana) and Vice-President (Rüdiger Wolfrum of Germany).

18 October 1996, Hamburg

The ceremonial inauguration of the Tribunal takes place in the presence of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

21 October 1996, Hamburg

The Tribunal appoints Gritakumar Chitty (Sri Lanka) as Registrar.

17 December 1996, New York

The Tribunal is granted observer status at the UN General Assembly.

3 March 1997, Hamburg

The Tribunal establishes the Seabed Disputes Chamber, the Chamber for Fisheries Disputes and the Chamber for Marine Environment Disputes.

23 May 1997

The Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention adopt the Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

28 October 1997, Hamburg

The Tribunal adopts its Rules of Procedure.

13 November 1997, Hamburg

The first case is submitted to the Tribunal, The M/V "SAIGA" Case (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines v. Guinea), Prompt Release.

4 December 1997, Hamburg

The Tribunal delivers its first judgment.

18 December 1997, Hamburg

The United Nations and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea sign an Agreement on Cooperation and Relationship.

8 September 1998, Hamburg

Entry into force of the Relationship Agreement between the Tribunal and the United Nations.

3 July 2000, Hamburg

The official opening of the new headquarters of the Tribunal takes place in the presence of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan.

10 December 2003, Hamburg

Establishment of the International Foundation for the Law of the Sea (IFLOS).

14 December 2004, Berlin

Agreement signed between the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the Federal Republic of Germany regarding the Headquarters of the Tribunal.

29 September 2006, Hamburg

The Tenth Anniversary of the Tribunal.

16 March 2007, Hamburg

The Tribunal creates a standing special chamber to deal with maritime delimitation disputes pursuant to article 15, paragraph 1, of the Tribunal's Statute.

FAQs and other useful informations

A general presentation of the Tribunal's activities may be found in the brochure, which is available in English and French, as well as in ArabicChineseGermanRussian and Spanish. Copies may also be obtained from the Press Office of the Tribunal.

GENERAL

  • When was the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopted?

The Convention was adopted by the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea on 30 April 1982 and opened for signature on 10 December 1982. It entered into force on 16 November 1994.

  • How many States Parties to the Convention are there?

There are currently 167 States Parties to the Convention. This includes 166 States and one international organization (European Community). A full list of States Parties may be found on the internet pages of the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea.

  • Why was the Tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea?

The Tribunal was established as a specialised tribunal to deal with disputes arising out of the interpretation and application of the Convention. 

  • When was the Tribunal established?

The Tribunal came into existence following the entry into force of the Convention on 16 November 1994. After the election of the first judges on 1 August 1996, the Tribunal took up its work in Hamburg on 1 October 1996. The official inauguration of the Tribunal was held on 18 October 1996.

  • Why is Hamburg the seat of the Tribunal?

Hamburg was chosen to be the seat of the Tribunal by the representatives of the States participating in the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea by secret ballot on 21 August 1981. The choice of Hamburg, a well-known port city reputed for its long tradition in international shipping and maritime trade, is reflected in article 1, paragraph 2, of the Statute of the Tribunal.

  • Who funded the Tribunal's headquarters building?

The headquarters building was funded by the Federal Government of Germany (80%) and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (20%) and made available to the Tribunal rent-free. The maintenance costs for the running of the building are covered by the budget of the Tribunal.

  • Who designed the building?

The building was designed by Baron Alexander and Baroness Emanuela von Branca, a Munich-based firm of architects, who won an international competition organised in 1989.

  • Which languages does the Tribunal use?

The two official languages of the Tribunal are English and French. Other languages may be used by parties during proceedings, in which case the party concerned is requested to make the necessary arrangements for interpretation and/or translation into one of the official languages.

  • Is the Tribunal part of the United Nations?

The Tribunal is an independent judicial body that maintains close links with the United Nations. The Tribunal and the United Nations have entered into agreement concerning cooperation and relationship. The United Nations has granted the Tribunal observer status in the General Assembly. In addition the staff of the Tribunal are remunerated in accordance with the United Nations common system of salaries, allowances and benefits, as administered by the International Civil Service Commission. The Tribunal participates in the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund.

  • How much is the Tribunal's budget?

The budget of the Tribunal has been set at EUR 18,886,200 for 2015-2016

  • Who sets the budget and how are the contributions fixed?

The budget of the Tribunal is adopted annually by the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, on the basis of budget proposals submitted by the Tribunal.  The Meeting of States Parties is convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and takes place at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The States Parties pay contributions to the budget based upon the scale of assessments of the budget of the United Nations adjusted to take into account participation in the Convention. The European Community pays a fixed contribution set by the Meeting of States Parties.

JUDGES

  • How are the judges of the Tribunal elected and who elects them?

The judges of the Tribunal are elected by the States Parties. Elections for the position of one-third of the judges of the Tribunal are held at the Meeting of States Parties every three years in New York. Candidates must be nominated by States Parties and require a two-thirds majority of the votes of the States Parties present and voting in order to be elected.

  • What are the prerequisites for becoming a judge?

Article 2 of the Statute of the Tribunal sets down that it "shall be composed of a body of 21 independent members, elected from among persons enjoying the highest reputation for fairness and integrity and of recognized competence in the field of the law of the sea." 

  • How many judges are there?

 There are 21 judges.

  • What is the term of the judges?

 The judges are elected for a term of nine years.

  • Is there a geographical distribution of judges?

The Tribunal may not include more than one judge of the same nationality on its bench and the representation of the principal legal systems of the world and geographical distribution shall be assured. The composition of the Judges is currently as follows:

Africa: 5

Asia: 5

Eastern Europe: 3

Latin America and the Caribbean: 4

Western Europe and other States: 4

  • Are the judges permanently resident in Hamburg?

Only the President of the Tribunal is permanently based in Hamburg. The other judges must be permanently available to exercise their functions and travel to Hamburg for cases and organizational sessions.

  • How are the President and Vice-President chosen and for how long?

The judges elect the President and Vice-President from among themselves by secret ballot for three years.

  • What is a judge ad hoc?

A party to a case that does not have a judge of its own nationality on the bench may nominate a person to sit as a judge during the case. The judge ad hoc participates in that case on an equal basis with the other judges.

  • Have any chambers been constituted?

As provided for by its Statute, the Tribunal has constituted the Seabed Disputes Chamber and the Chamber of Summary Procedure. Three other chambers have been formed by the Tribunal, the Chamber for Fisheries Disputes, the Chamber for Marine Environment Disputes and the Chamber for Maritime Delimitation Disputes. In addition special chambers have been formed to deal with the Case concerning the Conservation and Sustainable Exploitation of Swordfish Stocks in the South-Eastern Pacific Ocean (Chile/European Community) and the Dispute Concerning Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary between Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire in the Atlantic Ocean (Ghana/Côte d'Ivoire).

REGISTRY

  • What is the function of the Registry?

The Registry is the administrative organ of the Tribunal. Headed by the Registrar, it consists of a number of different departments: Legal, Administration and Finance, Electronic Data Processing, Press, Conference and Linguistic Services and Library.

  • What are the responsibilities of the Registrar?

The Registrar is responsible for all legal and administrative work, for the assessment and collection of contributions, and for the administration of the accounts and finances of the Tribunal. The Registrar is the regular channel of communications to and from the Tribunal, keeps the List of cases, and keeps copies of communications and agreements as required by the Rules.

  • How many members of staff are there?

There are currently 36 members of staff.

  • Is there a geographical distribution of staff?

The Tribunal endeavours to maintain as wide a geographical distribution as possible in its selection of staff. There are currently 18 different nationalities represented at the Tribunal.

CASES

  • What is the List of cases?

The List of cases is a list of all the cases that have been submitted to the Tribunal.

  • How many cases have been submitted to the Tribunal so far?

Twenty-four cases have been submitted to the Tribunal to date.

  • How are proceedings instituted before the Tribunal?

Disputes before the Tribunal are instituted either by written application or by notification of a special agreement. The procedure to be followed for the institution of proceedings before the Tribunal is defined in the Statute and the Rules of the Tribunal as well as in theGuidelines concerning the Preparation and Presentation of Cases before the Tribunal.

  • What type of cases are submitted to the Tribunal?

Any case arising out of the application or interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea may be brought to the Tribunal. In the cases submitted to the Tribunal to date the following matters have figured prominently: prompt release of vessels and crews under article 292 of the Convention, coastal State jurisdiction in its maritime zones, freedom of navigation, hot pursuit, marine environment, flags of convenience and conservation of fish stocks. The Tribunal's jurisdiction also extends to cases arising out of other agreements that confer jurisdiction on the Tribunal.

  • Are the hearings open to the public?

The hearings are public unless the Tribunal decides otherwise or the parties to the case request that the public not be admitted. People wishing to attend the hearings should register with the Press Office in advance to ensure entry.

  • Who bears the expenses of the Tribunal for cases submitted to it?

Expenses of the Tribunal, including expenses incurred on account of cases submitted to it, are borne by the States Parties to the Convention through the budget of the Tribunal. States Parties are therefore not required to pay the Tribunal any additional amount if they are parties to cases before the Tribunal. Non-States Parties would be required to pay a fee fixed by the Tribunal.

  • What law is applied by the Tribunal?

The Tribunal applies the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other rules of international law not incompatible with the Convention.

  • Can experts be appointed by the Tribunal?

Yes. If the Tribunal decides that it requires expert advice on a case involving technical or scientific matters it may select an expert under article 289 of the Convention, to be chosen in consultation with the parties and preferably from the list of experts maintained in accordance with article 2 of Annex VIII to the Convention.

  • Can parties present witnesses during hearings?

Yes. Witnesses can be presented during hearings.

  • Is the Tribunal the only court dealing with law of the sea cases?

No. The Tribunal is one means for the settlement of disputes arising out of the Convention, the other means being the International Court of Justice, an arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VII to the Convention, and a special arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VIII to the Convention. The United Nations General Assembly has recognized the contribution of the Tribunal to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with Part XV of the Convention and has underlined the Tribunal's important role and authority concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention.

  • Do States have to have accepted the Tribunal's jurisdiction in advance?

Generally speaking, all parties to a case have to accept the jurisdiction of the Tribunal before the case is dealt with by the Tribunal. The jurisdiction may be accepted either before the dispute arises or thereafter.

  • Can only States Parties submit cases to the Tribunal?

The Tribunal is also open to entities other than States Parties to the Convention in any case expressly provided for in Part XI of the Convention or in any case submitted pursuant to any other agreement conferring jurisdiction on the Tribunal which is accepted by all the parties to that case. In Part XI provision is made, for example, for private companies or individuals to bring cases to the Seabed Disputes Chamber in connection with activities in the Area. 

  • Are the Tribunal's decisions binding and how can the Tribunal enforce them?

The decisions of the Tribunal are final and binding and the parties to the dispute are required to comply with them. However, the Tribunal has no means of enforcing its decisions. 

  • What is a prompt release case?

Article 292 of the Convention deals with cases relating to the prompt release of vessels and crews from detention, in certain cases when it is alleged that the detaining State has not complied with the provisions of the Convention for the prompt release of vessels and crews upon the posting of a reasonable bond or other financial security.  Under its Rules, the Tribunal is required to deliver its judgments in such cases within 30 days of the date upon which the application is filed with the Tribunal.

  • Are provisional measures prescribed by the Tribunal effective?

The parties to a dispute are required to comply promptly with any provisional measures prescribed by the Tribunal either under article 290, paragraph 1, of the Convention or under article 290, paragraph 5, of the Convention.

  • Is there any recourse to appeal?

No. The decisions of the Tribunal are final.  However, the Rules of the Tribunal make provision regarding requests for the interpretation or revision of a judgment.

INFORMATION

  • Can I visit the Tribunal?

Yes. Guided tours of the Tribunal can be arranged for groups of up to 30 people.  Tours last approximately one-and-a-half hours and are conducted in English, French or German.

  • Does the Tribunal have any publications?

The Tribunal has the following publications:

–     Basic Texts

–     Yearbooks

–     Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders

–     Pleadings, Minutes of Public Sittings and Documents 

  • How can I get general information about the Tribunal?

The website is the best place to start in order to obtain general information.  In addition a brochure on the Tribunal may be obtained from the Press Office

  • How do I find out about jobs or internships at the Tribunal?

All vacancies are posted here.  Questions thereto may be sent to the Personnel Department.  Information about the internship programme is also available here or from the Press Office.

 

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