Wanted: a US sea law policy

The Law of the Sea seems sadly at sea as the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea begins its summer meeting in Geneva. What might have been a final session after seven years of negotiation could be left marking time by a Reagan administration not yet ready to resume the kind of full participation in which the United States had previously taken a lead. A number of agreed points, including some on the vexed question of mining seabed minerals, are based on US initiatives. Yet it appears these are among the very ones causing extensive review by the administration, almost as if the US were starting over again.

It is not hard to agree with other participants in these virtually universal negotiations that the new team in Washington had every reason to look closely at the provisions to which it might be committing the US. It was disappointing to be told at the end of the New York session last spring that the review would not be completed even in time for the August session.

In the meantime, reports have grown about serious resistance to the treaty within the administration. This is supposed to have been fostered not only by lobbyists for business seeking unhampered mining of the seabed but by the administraton's own antiregulatory stance, doubts about the United Nations, and preference for bilateral or other less than full-scale international agreements.

The Pentagon, for example, had strongly supported a Law of the Sea treaty as a means of assuring, among other things, free passage for US ships; now it is expressing reservations.

More than a dozen US agencies and departments have participated in shaping US sea law policies going back over three administrations. There had been controversy -- but not over the whole idea of working toward a comprehensive worldwide treaty.

The question now is whether the US still supports the Law of the Sea treaty whatever elements it may want to change or refine after review.

Perhaps the Reagan delegation has managed to review more than expected and can make a substantive contribution to the new session. Even if it has not, it ought to be able at least to inform the other delegates whether it wants a comprehensive treaty.

If it does, then the scheduled work could continue with some hope.

If Washington is not prepared to support a comprehensive treaty, this would be extremely unfortunate in terms of world reaction -- but better made plain than left in uncerta inty.

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