Fresh wind for Law of Sea

One major disputed issue and certain procedural matters have to be cleared up before final agreement on an international Law of the Sea treaty next spring. For years it had seemed as if this distant shore would never look this close. Yet progress was being made in the midst of regular reports of squalls and doldrums since the United Nations launched its third Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1973. In a striking push toward consensus at this year's sessions -- first in New York and just recently in Geneva -- the delegates from more than 150 countries have reached a point that makes a document ready for signing in 1981 more likely than once expected.

This means that practically all the problems that caused such difficulty have been worked out, and the diplomats involved deserve a global vote of thanks. They have had the extraordinary task of balancing national rights and interests against the concept of humanity's common heritage in the seas.

An example of their judiciousness lies in the preservation of freedom for scientific research in the coastal waters of states which may not have the technological resources to conduct such research themselves. They will have a say on such research but in a carefully prescribed manner.

As for the more publicized controversy over the mining of the valuable minerals in the seabed, the developed and developing nations reached a compromise believed to benefit all. Indeed, the developing nations cooperated to the point of an agreement close to the United States seabed mining legislation whose passage they deplored, with some justice, as a unilateral act threatening the advance of UNCLOS. This legislation recognizes third-world concerns by postponing commercial exploitation until 1988, and it will probably be overtaken before then by a Law of the Sea treaty. Under the present draft, private developers will be able to profit, and so will an international authority set up to participate in the development of the seabed and share the results. At the same time, the amount of minerals to be harvested would be controlled so as to keep from upsetting the market in these minerals produced on land.

With agreement also on such matters as free passage, fishing, and environmental safeguards, what remains to be done? First the Geneva document, including drafts by various committees and translations in various languages, must be put into "harmonized" form. Then in March and April the UNCLOS delegates will have to decide if the harmonized version still expresses their wishes. They will also have to decide such procedural matters as whether the treaty signers should include not only countries but such entities as the European Community, certain trust territorities, and -- a particularly vexed question -- the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Which leaves UNCLOS with the one major substantive issue mentioned at the outset. This has to do with bilateral disputes, such as the one over fishing rights between Canada and the United States, which some delegates felt should never have been part of UNCLOS. But, having been brought up, they had to be dealt with.

The question is how adjoining countries -- US and Canada, Venezuela and Colombia, for example -- should handle the proposed treaty's provision for 200 -mile zones of national economic jurisdiction, which would overlap each other's waters. One view favors a mathematical solution, simply dividing the waters on the basis of equidistance. Another favors the principle of "equitability," dividing jurisdiction to take account of the particular characteristics of each situation. The UNCLOS session in the spring will have to reach a meeting of the minds -- or it could choose to omit the matter, leaving it to existing international law.

We trust that the delegates will continue the same painstaking dedication to achieving consensus that has brought them this far despite political strains. As it is, the developed and developing nations seem to be showing that a "North-South dialogue" canm be productive on a vast subject like the sea, lending hope that it can be productive in other forums on the whole question of equitable development of the planet.

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