What Does The Term "International Waters" Mean?

International waters do not belong to any country or have no sovereignty.

International Waters is a term used to refer to waters that do not belong to any nation. International waters are formed when a water body transcends international boundaries, hence assigning no superiority to any state territorial boundary. The water bodies that commonly transcend state boundaries are lakes, rivers, estuaries, wetlands, and aquifers. Oceans, regional seas, and the vast marine ecosystems often transcend international boundaries. The common term for both occurrences is “Terra nullius” (Latin for no man’s land), signifying that the land/waters belong to nobody. Since no nation or state can control the waters, each of them has the unregulated liberty to take part in any water-related activities such as fishing, setting up infrastructures such as cables and pipelines, and research among other activities. International waters are also known as high seas. The term is coined from the Latin name mare liberum translated as high seas.

Convention on International Waters

The establishment of high seas was instituted by the Convention on the High Seas in 1958 and includes 63 signatories. The term high sea means two things: 1) No state can legally impose its rule on any part of the water and 2) Every part of the sea outside a territorial boundary is a high sea. The Convention on the High Seas is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention instituted economic zones 200 nautical miles from the baseline of the coastal shores into the water body. All manner of water activities at the Exclusive Economic Zones are under the sovereignty of the bordering nations and include the natural resources at the sea floor.

Disputes on International Waters

There are looming disputes over the territorial status of some of the world’s water bodies.

The Arctic Ocean

The polar water body is under a tussle between European Union members and four other nations, which include Canada, Denmark, Russia, and Norway. While the four consider certain parts of the water body as internal waters, EU claims that the Arctic is wholly an international water body.

The South China Sea

Countries such as India, Japan, the US, and the People’s Republic of China consider the South China Sea as an international water body. They also reject any viewpoint purporting that nations that undertook fishing in those waters during the Third Conference of the UN on the Law of the Seas should share in the resources belonging to territorial waters, in this case, China. Other disputed water bodies are Japan’s islet Okinotorishima and the Southern Ocean in Australia. Territorial waters that lack formal regulation leads to crime, illegal activities, and dumping within those waters. A notable example is Somalia’s part of the Indian Ocean. Piracy and other criminal activity in the high seas may be handled by any nation as stipulated under the rules of universal jurisdiction. However, crime within the exclusive economic zones/territorial waters/internal waters may be regulated by their respective ‘owners.’


Throughout the centuries, water has been a significant source of conflict among the bordering nations. However, recent research reveals that sound management of water bodies is a source of cooperation among neighboring nations. Such co-operation catalyzes greater socio-economic co-operation that potentially lead to growth and development of member nations.

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