Riches of the sea: compromise or conflict?

The administration's decision to try to renegotiate the Law of the Sea Treaty in order to increase the potential benefits to American mining interests is likely to produce the opposite of the intended effect. By granting a victory to those opposed to the plan negotiated so far, the administration has increased the chances of a major defeat for broad US strategic interests and an unraveling of the most complex -- and hopeful --der out of political chaos.

The effect is also to contribute to a credibility problem abroad by putting into question yet another treaty negotiated in good faith with recent Republican and Democratic presidents.

The Law of the Sea (LOS) Treaty has been under negotiation for seven years by over 150 countries. At the ninth negotiating session last summer genuine agreement seemed within reach for the first time on the toughest issues of all, including fair and equitable provisions for extracting manganese, copper, and nickel from the deep seabed. The diplomatic miracle was to accomplish that crucial task while satisfying worldwide strategic, maritime, and development concerns.

Maritime nations like the US wanted assurance of unimpeded passage through strategic chokepoints such as Hormuz or Gibralter. US fishing interests wanted universal acceptance of the 200-mile economic resources zone we had already unilaterally legislated. We also wanted a territorial sea narrow enough so our submarines could operate optimally. We wanted new rules for compulsory dispute settlement at sea. Our scientific community wanted guidelines governing hydrographic research -- as did our Navy. Our environmentalists wanted marine mammals protected. And so on through 400 draft treaty articles.

But many countries are landlocked and wanted a share of the action. Others sit on key straits and wanted to control passage. Poor countries saw a new source of revenue for development in the manganese nodules on the seabed which belongs to no one and, according to international law, is part of the "common heritage of mankind." The militant leaders of the "77" -- the 114 countries mostly located in the poorer half of the globe --for a long time an overall agreement seemed an impossible dream, even though most countries agreed on the need for a set of agreed rules governing the operations of nations on nearly three-fourths of the earth's surface. Now a treaty is within reach.

The triumph of American diplomacy, in the skillful hands of US Ambassador Elliot Richardson, was to negotiate a compromise agreement protecting all the aforementioned US strategic and other interests, while enabling Western mining interests to extract minerals for themselves.The price was to help a new sea organization named the Enterprise mine in parallel with private interests, using the proceeds for the benefit of developing countries.

One of the most encouraging diplomatic events in years was the assumption of leadership in the LOS conferences by moderate statesmen from the "77" such as Tomy Koh of Singapore, who managed brilliantly to partially satisfy everyone's basic interests. Arrangements for the seabed regime were renegotiated until US commercial interests were reasonably served. EVen then they were only grudgingly accepted by the "77" --friends in Congress. The executive branch was split down the middle, with domestic agencies -- Commerce, Interior, and Office of Management and Budget -- urging unilateral US action, opposed by Stte and Defense Department officials who saw the vital US interests involved.

A compromise was reached last year --with extraordinary difficulty -- on US domestic legislation that served to protect both US worldwide concerns reflected in a successful LOS treaty, and the interests of mining companies who were authorized to proceed on their own if a treaty was not in effect by the first date -- 1988 -- when commercial operations were feasible. Part of the remaining LOS negotiation was to improve further interim investment protection.

If the treaty is pulled up by the roots with a demand for even greater Americans benefits, the various compromises which sustain other US vital interests are bound to unravel. The moderates who helped us will have been discredited, leaving the field to the extremists. Nothing could be more damaging to abroad American interests in peace and stability, or to the dimming prospects for a practical world order to help manage those things we either must cooperate to share equitably or will wind up fighting over.

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