Falkland war zones bolster UN case for a law of the sea

The Falkland Islands dispute in which both Argentina and Britain have declared 200-mile war zones has strengthened the argument of those at the UN who are pleading for a Law of the Sea Treaty.

The treaty, which looks as if it will finally be adopted this year, would regulate use of the world's oceans. Among the key provisions are standard territorial zones for coastal nations.

The treaty would, for instance, put an end to the unilateral claims of countries such as Argentina that proclaimed 200-mile territorial zones prior to the successful conclusion of an international treaty.

Britain's declaration of a 200-mile zone of maritime exclusion around the Falklands was seen here as a riposte to Argentina's existing 200-mile zone. To counter Britain, Argentina then declared its territorial zone an off-limits zone to British ships.

Britain's decision to set up a 200-mile zone of ''maritime exclusion'' around the Falkland Islands--within which it will feel free to sink Argentine ships - has no basis in current international law nor in British law.

Under the proposed Law of the Sea Treaty provision is made for a 200-mile zone, but only for economic purposes such as fishing and seabed exploration rights.

The treaty would not allow a nation to shoot vessels innocently passing through these waters--at least in time of peace.

Britain's setting up of a 200-mile zone of ''maritime exclusion'' around the Falkland Islands is privately regarded as ''bizarre'' by many UN legal experts.

What puzzles some military experts, as one West European Navy officer sees it , is: ''If Britain is not at war with Argentina, then it can definitely not deny innocent passage to Argentina vessels within 200 miles around the Falklands. On the other hand, if England considers itself at war with Argentina, then it need not establish any such limits. Indeed, it can sink enemy ships wherever it finds them, except of course within the territorial waters of countries with which it is not at war.''

Libya's claims with regard to its own ''territorial waters'' are a case in point. Not only has the United States strongly opposed them, but it has twice--once last year and once more recently--sent its warships to engage in naval maneuvers within the Libyan-claimed maritime zone. There have been frictions in the past between the US and Peru on the same score.

One plausible explanation of Britain's initiative can be found in purely military thinking:

The ''cordon sanitaire'' it has established around the Falklands can be seen as a precautionary measure, a ''warning to ships'' to stay out of troubled waters. Even the UN Charter allows a country to exercise its right of self-defense when attacked by another power.

''The intention behind the setting up of this 200-mile zone clearly points toward a blockade, a will to disable the Argentine Navy without actually shooting at it,'' said one official with a military and legal background.

Most nations, including Britain, abide by a three-mile radius in defining their ''territorial'' waters. Within that zone, they are entitled by custom to use force in self-defense against a foreign trespasser.

But 25 countries have unilaterally extended their territorial waters beyond the usual 3--to 12-mile radius. Among them Argentina, Peru, Panama, Uruguay, and Sierra Leone claim a 200-mile zone; Tanzania and Madagascar claim 50 miles; Gabon, 100 miles; Liberia, 200; and Syria 35.

These unilateral claims and the ensuing legal chaos should cease if a Law of the Sea Treaty were adopted.

Although Britain's declaration of a its 200-mile Falklands zone has no solid legal foundation, it is not without precedent. During World War II, President Roosevelt unilaterally set up a 300-mile maritime ''security zone'' around the hemisphere. This precedent was later invoked by Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina to justify their claims for a 200-mile ''territorial waters'' zone.

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