International Law Idea and Limits of the Continental Shelf
Øystein Jensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0161


The outcome of many years’ development in customary international law and treaty law, the continental shelf is today subject to a special international legal regime. This regime—which acquired its name simply from its geological counterpart—is, basically, one of the maritime zones in which coastal states exercise sovereign rights and jurisdiction. The regime of the continental shelf came into being around the mid-20th century, as technological developments made it easier to exploit offshore hydrocarbon resources in the seabed and its subsoil. These technological advances prompted a series of coastal states to lay claim to maritime areas that previously had belonged to no one: the seabed and subsoil extending beyond the territorial waters. Chief among these claims was that promulgated by US president Harry Truman on 28 September 1945. But who really owned the seabed? The international community was forced to consider the question. Developed concurrently as customary international law in the post–World War II era, the regime on the continental shelf was the subject of multilateral negotiations at consecutive Law of the Sea Conferences under the auspices of the United Nations. The First United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) 1958 (cited under Codification) adopted the Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. This Convention was widely supported and solidified the continental shelf regime in international law, notably with respect to the substantive rights regarding the continental shelf that accrue to a state. The 1958 Convention nevertheless failed to provide an acceptable regime with respect to the definition of the continental shelf. It defined its outer limits using an exploitability criterion; in practice, it meant there were no clearly defined outer limits. The controversies thus continued, and new ideas for the outer limit of the continental shelf unfolded at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) 1973–1982 (cited under Codification) UNCLOS III culminated with the 1982 adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (the Law of the Sea Convention). Compared to the Geneva Convention, the Law of the Sea Convention contained a more balanced and holistic regime for the law of the sea, including more clearly defined rules concerning the seaward extension of the continental shelf. A vast amount of literature has been published on the legal regime of the continental shelf, of which this bibliography obviously can provide only an overview. It is nevertheless meant to provide authoritative guidance with respect to existing scholarly works, placing emphasis on what are generally considered the key monographs and anthologies, as well as a selection of relevant research articles. For practical purposes, the bibliography is limited to literature in English.

General Overviews and Textbooks

The rules concerning the continental shelf are first of all dealt with in a number of classic textbooks devoted to public international law. Crawford 2019 provides an overview of the regime on the continental shelf. An overall assessment is also contained in Jennings and Watts 2008. The law of the continental shelf is, however, too vast and complicated to be discussed in a mere few pages. So, although they situate the continental shelf regime in its proper international law context, these treatises cannot do justice to every detail of the continental shelf regime. There are several textbooks that nevertheless deal specifically with the law of the sea as a separate subfield of international law. They offer a more comprehensive examination of the rules on the continental shelf, including the rights and duties of the coastal states. Early monographs on the law of the sea, which also address aspects of the regime of the continental shelf, include Smith 1959, McDougal and Burke 1962, Bowett 1967, and Anand 1982. A widely recognized textbook on the modern law of the sea is Churchill and Lowe 1999. Anyone new to the field of the law of the sea will acquire balanced information from this extensive, readable, and coherent book, distinguished by excellent references to legal disputes and notes apparatus. Last updated and revised in 1999, the third edition is already over twenty years old. Other textbooks that take a broader but thorough approach to the topic, and which discuss the continental shelf regime in its historical and contemporary setting, are Tanaka 2019 and Rothwell and Stephens 2016.

  • Anand, Ram Prakash. Origin and Development of the Law of the Sea: History of International Law Revisited. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004478206

    A historical account of the emergence of the law of the sea, in which Anand pays special attention to the 20th century and acceptance of new maritime zones in international practice, including fisheries zones and continental shelves.

  • Bowett, Derek William. The Law of the Sea. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1967.

    Written by an authority on global institutions, this advanced introduction is a useful early monograph on the law of the sea.

  • Churchill, Robin Rolf, and Alan Vaughan Lowe. The Law of the Sea. 3d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    A standard work on the law of the sea, both balanced and readable. Covers all the relevant subject areas of the field. The book is an excellent introduction for advanced students to the continental shelf regime, in terms of its definition, substantive rights, and delimitation.

  • Crawford, James. Brownlie’s Principles of Public International Law. 9th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/he/9780199699698.001.0001

    Offering a comprehensive coverage of international law, the legal system, and its constituent elements, this extensively referenced book provides a solid foundation for further research.

  • Jennings, Robert, and Arthur Watts, eds. Oppenheim’s International Law. 9th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This two-volume work is a classic of international law. The book makes extensive references to state practice and judicial decisions.

  • McDougal, Myres Smith, and William Thomas Burke. The Public Order of the Oceans: A Contemporary International Law of the Sea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

    The original version of a critical textbook. McDougal and Smith research the early post–World War II development of the law of the sea, including UNCLOS I and the Geneva Conventions. Discussion of maritime zones beyond the territorial sea is limited.

  • Rothwell, Donald R., and Tim Stephens. The International Law of the Sea. 2d ed. Oxford: Hart, 2016.

    An extensive elaboration of the law of the sea. Rothwell and Stephens address the main areas of the law of the sea, including the nature and extent of the maritime zones and delimitation of maritime boundaries.

  • Smith, Herbert Arthur. The Law and Custom of the Sea. London: Stevens, 1959.

    The third edition of Smith’s introduction to the international law of the sea, written by a professor of international law who for many years lectured at the Royal Naval War College. The section on the continental shelf is rather limited.

  • Tanaka, Yoshifumi. The International Law of the Sea. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108545907

    An extensive yet student-friendly textbook that covers a wide range of topics, including the different maritime zones, marine environmental protection, and maritime boundary delimitation.

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