After seven years of tough negotiations the 150 nations seeking to hammer out an international Law of the Sea treaty have reached agreement on more than 90 percent of the issues that originally divided them. In all likelihood, the United Nations treaty guaranteeing the "freedom of the seas" and governing navigation, fishing, and seabed mining in international waters will be signed next year. But the remaining issues to be resolved when delegates reconvene in Geneva next month are amon gthe thorniest and, from an economic standpoint, most important elements of the treaty.
One of the biggest sticking points is how to ensure open access to the seabed to both developing countries and those industrialized ones that already have the money and knowhow to mien the valuable minerals that exist in potato-shaped nodules which cover vast areas of the ocean floor. The treaty would create an international Seabed Authority to oversee the mining and allocate sites; it would use a complex scheme to protect the interests of poorer nations as well as those of private mining companies which invest haeavily in the pioneering technology that will be required to mine the seabed.
However, under heavy pressure from private mining interests, both houses of the US Congress have passed legislation that will permit American companies to start exploring the seabed and, by 1988, to begin mining for minerals. In the short run, the US decision not to wait for the treaty to be signed but to go ahead unilaterally with plans for mining could harden the resistance of third-world delegates to some sections of the treaty and make final agreement more difficult.
Third-world representatives in Geneva no doubt will question whether the US has negotiated in good faith. And there can be little doubt that the US move does open the door to unilateral exploitation of underwater resources. However, the US action might also serve to prod the slow-moving talks off center. With the US determined to proceed with developing the mining technology with or without a treaty, other nations may feel a greater compulsion to come to terms on a treaty that allows for a sharing of resources and provides for joint mining ventures by rich and poor nations -- rather than stand the chance of being left out altogether.
The important thing about the expected US legislation is that it will give the UN conference ample time -- until 1988 -- to reach agreement on a treaty before any commercial exploitation begins. Efforts will be made to ensure that the investments of US mining companies priority access to sites where exploration already has begun. Some such arrangement seems reasonable, but it will be equally important not to lock in a long-term system that locks out third-world nations from prime mining sites.
The UN conferees have agreed that the proposed Seabed Authority that will oversee the mining be drawn up to adequately represent all special interests, including producers and a geographical distribution of elected representatives from third-world and industrial countries. One of the most difficult questions still to be ironed out is how much power the authority should be given. Striking the proper balance between the opposing views of the have and have-not countries will not be easy. But with final agreement on a treaty now within reach, all parties ought to redouble efforts to find an equitable solution to sharing the resources of the oceans -- mankind's "common heritage."