International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
July 2006, Volume 1, Issue 3

International Tribunal Spotlight:
International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)Introduction

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), located in the German port city of Hamburg, was established as an international judicial body pursuant to Annex VI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  This Convention, which is often referred to as the “constitution of the seas” was opened for signature in 1982 and entered into force in 1994.  There are presently 149 States parties to the UNCLOS.

In addition to creating the ITLOS, the Convention codified numerous maritime practices and norms related to the world’s oceans and seas that evolved over the course of 500 years.

For instance, the Convention regulates access to and activities within the various maritime zones such as the territorial sea, continuous zone, continental shelf, exclusive economic zone, and the high seas. It also addresses the rights and responsibilities of States parties in exploring the many resources situated below the ocean surface.

The ITLOS functions as one of four dispute resolution mechanisms in matters concerning the Convention’s interpretation and application. If direct talks between parties to a dispute fail to produce a settlement, either party may submit the matter to the ITLOS or to one of the other three compulsory dispute resolution mechanisms set forth in Article 287 of the Convention.

The other three mechanisms are the International Court of Justice, an arbitral tribunal for resolving disputes of a general nature, and special arbitral procedures for disputes related to fisheries, the marine environment, scientific research, and vessel navigation and pollution.

States parties choose from among these four mechanisms by offering a written declaration either at the time of signature, ratification, or accession to the Convention, or at any time thereafter.

Since it became fully operational at the end of 1996, thirteen cases have been submitted to the ITLOS. Its proceedings, which are open to the public, consist of written and oral stages and are conducted in either English or French, the official languages of the Tribunal.

Structure and Composition

The ITLOS is made up of the Judges Chambers (main Tribunal, Seabed Disputes Chamber, and special chambers), and the Registry. The competencies of these organs are set forth in the Convention, the Tribunal Statute, Rules of Procedures, and other documents.

The Tribunal is composed of 21 judges who are elected for a renewable nine year term at a meeting of States parties by secret ballot from a list of nominees.

According to Article 2 of the Statute, all nominees shall have “the highest reputation for fairness and integrity and of recognized competence in the field of the law of the sea.”

Notably, these criteria do not include prior experience as a judge, although several of the judges currently serving on the Tribunal do have judicial experience. All have held senior academic and diplomatic positions. 

The President and Vice President of the Tribunal, both of whom serve a renewable term of three years, are elected by its members. The President presides over hearings of the Tribunal and is responsible for supervising its work.

A quorum of at least 11 members is necessary to constitute the Tribunal and hear disputes that fall within its general subject matter jurisdiction in accordance with the Convention.

The ITLOS is also composed of a special chamber of judges, the Seabed Disputes Chamber (SBDC), whose 11 members resolve disputes involving the use of the resources found within the International Seabed Area.

Other special chambers, composed of between 3 to 7 members, may be constituted to hear disputes on summary procedure, fisheries disputes, marine environment disputes, and other cases on the request of the parties.

The Tribunal’s Registry functions as its principal administrative organ and is responsible for numerous activities. Chief among these are: keeping the List of Cases, transmitting certified copies of pleadings to parties, publishing judgments and other Tribunal documents, and managing the Tribunal’s finances.

In addition, the Registry serves as the primary channel of communication to and from the Tribunal. Similarly, it works to maintain relationships with and provide information about the Tribunal to other international and UN bodies as well as governments, courts, and legal professionals around the world.

The Registry is composed of a Registrar, Deputy Registrar, Assistant Registrar, and staff, all of whom are appointed by the members of the Tribunal.


All disputes over the interpretation or application of the UNCLOS fall within the Tribunal’s jurisdiction provided local remedies have been exhausted in accordance with international law. Similarly, the Tribunal has jurisdiction over disputes involving an international agreement related to the purposes of the Convention. In both instances, the parties to the dispute must first agree to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction either through a declaration or special agreement.

The Seabed Dispute Chamber has jurisdiction over disputes involving the Convention and the Agreement Relating to the Implementation of the Part XI of the Convention and may issue advisory opinions on legal issues related to seabed activities upon the request of the General Assembly, Security Council, and the International Seabed Authority.

In addition to interpreting and applying the UNCLOS, the Tribunal may also rely on principles of international law and the regulations of the International Seabed Authority    when deciding disputes and applications.

Disputes before the Tribunal are decided by a majority of Tribunal members who participate in the deliberations. The judgment is signed by the President and Registrar and read to the parties in an open session of the Tribunal. Judges may issue separate and dissenting opinions.

All judgments of the Tribunal and its chambers, including provisional measures, are considered final and binding on the parties to the dispute. Copies are provided to each of the parties and are placed in the Tribunal archives.


The Tribunal’s 2005-2006 budget totals EUR 15,506,500. This amount includes the Tribunal’s operating expenses and salaries, allowances, and compensation of Tribunal staff.

Operating expenses also include the maintenance of the Tribunal building, the construction of which was financed by the German government and the city of Hamburg and has been made available to the Tribunal for use on a rent-free basis.

Each party to the dispute bears its own costs associated with the preparation and hearing of its case. An ITLOS Trust Fund was established by the UN Secretary General to assist States parties in settling disputes through the Tribunal.

For More Information

International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

UN Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea

International Seabed Authority

ASIL Insight on Maritime Boundary Dispute involving Guyana and Suriname

ASIL Insight on Legal Issues and Marine Scientific Research


by Andrew Solomon, ASIL Director of Research and Outreach Programs

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© 2006 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Katherine Brantingham and Andrew Solomon.
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