Political Geography and International Law of the Sea

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Professor, Political Geography, University of Tehran, Iran

2 Ph.D. Candidate, Political Geography, University of Tehran, Iran


The history of legal discussions of the sea goes back to 1590. It was international discussions and disputes over specifying sea borders which caused International Law of the Sea to be created. In 1590, Denmark was the first country to choose eight miles as its marine limits. In the middle of seventeenth century, Island and Norway, which were marine countries, also chose a 24 mile marine territory for themselves. After the introduction of free Sea Theory by Hugo Grotius, the Dutch lawyer, in 1609, and after that of Closed Sea Theory by Selden, the English Lawyer, these discussions were heightened and the necessity for the creation of marine borders was strongly felt. In the following years, the representation of Artillery Range Theory lessened these debates and the three mile coastal sea standard based on the artillery range standard spread among countries; but the Scandinavian and Mediterranean countries still were applying the four and eight mile standard. Even some countries like Brazil and Peru, which are located alongside the ocean, claimed for 200 miles of their coasts. These discussions and divisions among coastal countries led to measures for creation of International Law of the Sea after the World War I, which continued until 1982. For solving this chaos, after the World War I, in 1930, the international society held the Sea Law Conference in The Hague which came to no result. Then, after the World War II, two conferences were held by The United Nations in 1958 and 1960. Finally, the Third International Convention of the Law of the Sea was enacted in 1982 which has been considered as an internationally credible and recognized act, enforced on the behavior of states and the interaction of countries with regard to marine territories. From the beginning of the drafting of International Law of the Sea, the geography factor has played an important role. Furthermore, nowadays issues such as North Pole events and conflicts among different countries about creating sea territories reveal that the location factor plays an important role in discussions among countries about creating sea territories and in their legal claims. Therefore, the aim of the current research is to study the role of geographical factors in the drafting of International Law of the Sea and the creation of conflicts among countries about borders of sea territories.
The current study has been conducted based on the neorealist approach and the descriptive-analytic method. Data collection has been done by using library and the Internet and the material will be analyzed qualitatively.
Result and discussion
Territoriality in the sea is in some ways different from territoriality in the land. The marine territories are actually an extension of the land territory under water which is applied according to the rules and principles governing international relations in sea zones. Territory expansion of countries in the sea happened much later than the same in the land and political geography of the sea is a relatively recent field of knowledge. The fluid characteristic of water, the existence of marine factors and elements, adherence to international law of the sea, and belief in the freedom principle in the sea have each had a role in this delay and have impacted territory formation in the sea. Thus, we can say that the political geography of the sea, as a subset of the political geography, studies the conditions and procedures of formation of sea territories and defense, economic, and environmental importance of it for states. In addition to that, it specifically focuses on the interplay of geography and the law of the sea enacted in the international conventions of Law of the Sea. When we take a look at the process of drafting of international law of the sea, we realize that from the beginning, geography has played a prominent role in the conflicts among the countries and the drafting of the laws. Hence, the role of geographical factors such as geographical location, tide and ebb, gulf, depth, delta, island, strait, and archipelago, on the drafting of International Law of the Sea has been considered. This study shows that political geography of the sea has an interdisciplinary nature, and it studies the role of geography, international law, diplomacy, technology, and power on the way sea territories are determined and are used by coastal governments.
From the beginning of international law of the sea, geography, international law, diplomacy, technology and power have had an important role. But geography has been the ground for all these laws. The geography of the countries which have had an active role in the drafting of International Law of the Sea, especially physical and geomorphologic characteristics of their coasts, has had a prominent role in determining the legal condition of sea territories. On the other hand, laws which have been enacted under the pressure of great powers have also influenced geography of countries. In addition, the geography factor plays an important role in discussions among countries about creating sea territories and in their legal claims, one of the most interesting of which is claims about North Pole after 2007 onwards after the thinning of the ice layer of it. On the other hand, we should consider the issue that all the countries want to have more security and they pursue this issue in sea territories through extending and consolidating their marine territories, especially their territorial sea. The geographical characteristics of countries, alongside ambiguity about the laws enacted about the sea, have had a major role in creating different, and sometimes contradictory and double interpretations of sea laws.


Main Subjects

  • Receive Date: 28 November 2011
  • Revise Date: 17 September 2014
  • Accept Date: 07 July 2013
  • First Publish Date: 22 June 2014