In This Article Islands

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews on the Law of the Sea
  • General Overviews on Islands and Archipelagos
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias
  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  • Coastal Islands and Archipelagos
  • The ICJ Judgment in the Fisheries Case (Norway versus United Kingdom)
  • Islands and Delimitation of Maritime Spaces
  • State Practice Concerning Islands and Archipelagos

International Law Islands
Esperanza Orihuela Calatayud
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0076


One of the features of the contemporary Law of the Sea is the establishment of specific legal regimes for certain geographic realities to which, on account of their peculiar characteristics, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has given particular attention. This feature is reflected in the regulations established for islands and archipelagos, special regimes that, together with the rules laid down for drawing straight baselines, show a heterogeneous treatment of these realities according to their geographical location, so making it possible to notice the existence of differential treatment between coastal islands and archipelagos and oceanic islands and archipelagos. Conforming to the Law of the Sea, coastal archipelagos, islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations may be used by the coastal state to draw straight baselines and set the maritime spaces over which its sovereignty or jurisdiction extends (articles 4 and 11 of the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone and articles 7 and 13 of the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea). Regarding ocean islands and archipelagos, the Law of the Sea, prior to the revision made by the Third United Nations Conference, equated island coasts (isolated or forming an archipelago) to the coast of a continental state, thus enabling their maritime spaces to be drawn like that of the continental state. However, currently archipelagic states have seen the right to use the archipelagic principle recognized, and some islands have seen the possibility of enjoying the same maritime spaces as continental, archipelagic, or island states limited. Nevertheless, islands should not be considered only as territories that enjoy their own maritime spaces but also as an important factor in maritime delimitations. Their presence often leads to different points of view between the parties involved when drafting the boundary, and this makes an equitable solution difficult. In addition, islands could be considered also as object of sovereignty disputes between states.

General Overviews on the Law of the Sea

Comprehensive works on islands and archipelagos are scarce, but it is possible to find some broad references to these subjects in general overviews on Law of the Sea. See Anand 1980; Freestone, et al. 2006; O’Connell 1982; Rothwell and Stephens 2010; Tanaka 2012; and (in French) Dupuy and Vignes 1985.

  • Anand, Ram Prakash, ed. Law of the Sea: Caracas and Beyond. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Edited when the Third Conference was being held, it offers important references to the main changes and developments introduced in the Law of the Sea. The chapter written by Mani, pp. 82–110, offers a clear analysis of the evolution of the legal regime of islands.

  • Dupuy, René-Jean, and Daniel Vignes, eds. Traité du nouveau droit de la mer. Paris: Economica, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collective work offers a good analysis of the main aspects of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and makes particular reference to archipelagos, especially in the definition of archipelagic states, archipelagic lines, and the legal regime of archipelagic waters.

  • Freestone, David, Richard Barnes, and David Ong, eds. The Law of the Sea: Progress and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199299614.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Written by specialists who have spent a lifetime working with the Law of the Sea, this work has a particular value for those who wish to know about the evolution of the Law of the Sea after the 1982 United Nations Convention. We would highlight the reference to archipelagic sea lanes.

  • O’Connell, Daniel Patrick. The International Law of the Sea. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    This excellent book, edited by Professor I. A. Shearer after the author’s death, is a consultation required for researchers and practitioners interested in the Law of the Sea and offers a good reference for islands and archipelagos.

  • Rothwell, Donald, and Tim Stephens. The International Law of the Sea. Portland, OR: Hart, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book takes as its focus the rules and institutions established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and places the achievements of the Convention in historical and contemporary context. The references to archipelagos are in chapter 8.

  • Tanaka, Yoshifumi. The International Law of the Sea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511844478E-mail Citation »

    This book, recently published, provides a general analysis of the Law of the Sea with references to islands (pp. 62–68) and archipelagos (pp. 108–116).

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