Law of the Sea: fanfare and an uncertain future
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Treaty provisions are not exempt from criticism, after all, even though they are the product of genuine negotiation between two sharply defined views. The problem is that all 130 developing countries and a fair of number of developed countries would consider unilateral mining to be in direct violation of international law -- or at the very least of the 1970 General Assembly resolution adopted during the Nixon administration by a vote of 108 to 0 (with the Soviet bloc abstaining and the United States voting in favor) that deep seabed resources are "the common heritage of mankind," to be exploited only "in accordance with an international regime to be created."Skip to next paragraph
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There is also the fact that the other areas of the draft treaty contain provisions of equal if not greater importance to the US national interest, most critically the preservation of freedom of navigation and overflight on the high seas, in the new "200-mile exclusive economic zones," and in straits like Gibraltar or Hormuz. The draft treaty also assures that the United States may claim its hard mineral resources, especially oil, in the areas of the continental margin that extend beyond 200 miles, subject only to minimal revenue-sharing provisions. Whales within and without the 200-mile economic zone receive special attention in a provision that should enhance their long-term conservation as a unique species. The draft treaty also makes important contributions to the evolution of international law for the protection of the marine environment, particularly in the area of vessel-source pollution.
In spite of these points, it is the administration's sympathy with the mining companies' view that led it to announce last week that its delegation had been instructed to seek a delay in the adoption of a formal draft treaty until a major policy review can be completed.
Whatever the result, the US delegation is likely to have its work cut out for it, since most other countries in the conference, developed and developing alike , came to New York to negotiate what they consider to be the remaining outstanding issues, not to reopen compromise texts resulting from the hardfought battles of the past seven years. These issues are complicated enough, involving as they do the establishment of a preparatory commission that will draft the provisional rules and regulatons for the authority; participation (which entities in addition to recognize states can sign the treaty); and, finally, preparatory investment protection for US mining companies during the interim period, an issue put on the agenda by the United States last summer in Geneva.
The last three administrations, two Republican and one Democratic, have all supported the goal of a widely accepted Law of the Sea treaty as the best way to protect the interests of all nations, including the United States. The new administation shares the same objective, but whether progress can be made toward it at this session remains to be seen. What really is at stake is the opportunity to establish by treaty the rule of law for an area that covers nearly three-quarters of the surface of the globe.