US Hitch in Law of the Sea

The Reagan administration has gotten off on the wrong foot with the majority of nations at the UN by stepping away from previous United States support for completing the Law of the Sea treaty this spring. After seven years of negotiations through Republican and Democratic administrations, the US had joined virtually all of the world's other countries in determining to reach final agreement at the session beginning Monday in New York. Washington's chief negotiator, Republican Elliot Richardson, had completed a hard-working three-year tenure convinced that US as well as international interests were properly served and that a treaty ready for signing was "all but certain" this year. This week, at the last minute, the State Department publicly instructed its delegation "to seek to insure that the negotiations do not end at the present session of the conference, pending a policy review by the United States."

No one in a dismayed international community is saying that the new US administration should have to forgo such a review. But some delegates question why a treaty of such historic importance apparently did not receive the attention given to other matters during the four months since the election. Another question is whether such a review could not be undertaken without suggesting that the US intends to go back on its earlier efforts to seek a completed treaty now. Such a position undercuts the negotiations, leaving other delegations uncertain of US adherence to agreed points and possibly encouraging other countries to make changes.

The Republican platform expresses doubts about the Law of the Sea Conference, saying it has paid insufficient attention to gaining early American access to the mineral resources on the seabed. But US unilateral legislation already postpones commercial exploitation of these resources until 1988. And the treaty negotiatiors have given long and hard attention to protecting the seabed rights of everybody.

At any rate, this issue is only one part of a document intended to regulate the uses of the oceans in many ways for the good of all, including a naval power like the United States to whose ships it would guarantee free passage. Perhaps President Reagan will come back from his trip to Canada with fresh resolve for completing a Law of the Sea treaty. A main remaining item of negotiation involves bilateral disputes like the one over fishing grounds between the US and Canada --country's 200-mile zone of national economic jurisdiction overlaps another's.

One option is to leave such disputes to existing international law. But the debate on this and other items must not be vitiated by lack of US resolve to work for a final treaty.

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