APRIL 1981 - VOLUME 2 - NUMBER 4
Law of the Sea: Reagan Scoffs
The United States recently dealt a sudden blow to what had been one of the most serious attempts of Third World and First World nations to reach an agreement on the distribution of the world's resources.
At the tenth session of the U.S. Law of the Sea conference which opened in New York in early March, delegates from 158 nations had expected to complete the 320-article draft treaty-the culmination of seven years of complex multilateral diplomacy.
But one week before the session began, the Department of State abruptly announced that the U.S. would not agree to wrap up the negotiation this time, pending a review of the entire treaty. A few days later the administration fired acting chief negotiator George Aldrich and eight other members of the bipartisan U.S. delegation.
The present draft treaty guarantees navigation and aircraft over flight rights on the high seas and through straits, recognizes 12-mile territorial and 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" limits for coastal nations, and establishes-in a now controversial provision-an international body to govern mining of the seabed.
The ocean floor, particularly in the North Pacific, is rich in small black nodules containing nickel, manganese, cobalt and copper. The draft treaty sets up a system for their mining where by each mine developed by a commercial consortium will have a matched mine run by The Enterprise, a new U.N. agency that the treaty establishes.
Under the treaty, The Enterprise would receive a mandatory transfer of mining technology from the private companies. Its profits would assist the developing countries, following the principle of "common heritage" which holds that no one owns the resources of the seabed; as the common heritage ' of mankind, their exploitation should benefit the least advantaged peoples of the world. This principle was accepted by U.S. Law of the Sea negotiators as long ago as 1970, during the Nixon administration.
The draft treaty is essentially a compromise between the First and Third Worlds. The industrial nations get navigation rights through critical straits like Gibraltar and Hormuz. Under the treaty, the U.S. Navy may sail unchallenged wherever it wishes. In return for these concessions, the Group of 77 (the developing countries) share in the exploitation of the seabed's resources.
International mining companies are unhappy with some of the treaty's provisions, especially those that transfer technology and limit production. The Reagan administration has listened to these complaints. A second important influence was the administration's view that the U.S. has been too "soft" toward the Third World in recent years in the many negotiations concerning a New International Economic Order.
A third factor is strategic: Reagan and his advisors have expressed concern about assuring future supplies for the U.S. of raw materials they claim are essential for weapons production-materials that often rest on the ocean floor.
Ironically, the administration's review could end up annoying the mining multinationals. If the U.S. attempts to reopen negotiations of the mining clauses, the Group of 77 may well reopen discussion of navigation rights. The result could be a deadlock. And all but one of the American, Canadian, British, German, Dutch and Japanese companies interested in seabed mining stress that they do want some treaty, rather than no treaty at all. To mine the seabed, they need capital, and to raise capital from banks and lenders, they need assured legal rights to mine sites.
- Nicholas Burnett