US Senate Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty

THE United States, having renegotiated some of the terms, is now ready to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This decision, a further step in a two-decade diplomatic saga, was announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Secretary of State Warren Christopher on June 30; a US signature now awaits only Senate ratification.

The UN conference to reconcile several unresolved issues regarding the use of the seas was convened in 1973. After a series of plenary meetings interspersed by working sessions, the conference approved a text in 1982. Although an active participant in the talks, the US under the new Reagan administration found serious fault with the treaty and voted against it, joined by Turkey, Israel, and Venezuela. Nevertheless, the requisite number of countries have now ratified the convention and it will take effect in November.

Certain provisions that codify maritime regulations definitely benefit the US, a major military and maritime power. Representatives of the Department of Defense were skeptical of the treaty process at first, but they now support it. The principle of ``innocent passage'' for warships through the 12-mile limit of territorial seas and the 200-mile economic zones has been accepted. Beyond that, the major maritime powers gained the right of free transit through international straits (such as Gibraltar and Malacca) by agreeing that archipelago states like Indonesia and the Philippines could establish special transit regimes within their island waters.

The Reagan administration, however, found unacceptable Part XI, which established an International Seabed Authority to control deep-sea mining. Technology developed by the industrial nations in the last 30 years makes extracting minerals from the ocean floor economically viable. Nodules averaging about an inch and a half in diameter composed largely of manganese, with traces of copper, nickel, cobalt, and other minerals, are found in many areas of the ocean floor. In the Pacific alone, there may be as much as 1.5 million tons of such minerals.

Developing nations, especially those that are landlocked, insisted from the outset that whatever lay under the sea was ``the common heritage of mankind'' and that the technology and any proceeds from mining should be shared.

Even before the Reagan administration, strong opposition to this concept emerged in the Congress; it was considered contrary to free-enterprise principles and a precedent for a ``new international economic order.'' The governance provisions did not assure the US, as potentially the largest investor, a seat on the governing board. Congress in 1980 passed the Deep Seabed Hard Minerals Act, encouraging the US to act on its own. Although the US might not be a party to the convention, treaty opponents argued that it could still benefit from the maritime provisions by claiming them to be ``customary law,'' by bilateral agreements, and, if necessary, by force.

Many in Washington remained uneasy at the possibility that the US be left outside the convention regime. Some mining firms doubted the practicality of investing large sums in a deep-sea venture that might be challenged in court. Naval authorities would prefer the protection of formal ratification. And, as the time for the treaty to take effect neared, so did the pressures to negotiate better conditions on the deep-sea mining provisions.

Informal discussions with representatives of the developing countries (G-77) began in 1990 and resulted in new ``market oriented'' arrangements on the transfer of technology, the distribution of proceeds, and governance. Having concluded that Washington's principal objections have now been met, the Clinton administration is expected shortly to submit the convention to the Senate.

Whether, even now, the UNCLOS will receive a two-thirds vote in the Senate is uncertain. The convention is a complex document. Congressional hearings - possibly extensive - are almost certain. Other nations, however, have now tried to remove the causes of Washington's hesitation; it is clearly in America's interest to respond by ratifying the convention.

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