A treaty for the seas

IN this bicentennial year of the United States Constitution, it is worth remembering another ambitious constitutional document which has not yet celebrated even its first anniversary. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS) sets basic rules on use of the oceans and waterways covering two-thirds of the earth's surface. A mere five years ago this 194-page document, the result of the longest and most complex global negotiations ever undertaken, was the focus of considerable excitement. It was widely assumed that the treaty, covering everything from fishing and ship passage rights to oil exploration, would be signed by every nation.

To date, 159 nations have signed the treaty. But only half of the required 60 ratifications are in. Much of the waning in enthusiasm is traceable to the US; in 1982 it refused to sign the treaty and successfully urged the United Kingdom and West Germany to follow suit.

The US turned its back on the entire treaty because it disagrees with the section on deep seabed mining; President Reagan called it ``fatally flawed.'' The crux of the administration's objection: its conviction that to the victor belong the spoils. Nations and entrepreneurs who go to the risk and expense of mining seabed nodules of manganese, cobalt, and nickel, the administration argues, deserve to keep the take and should not be obliged to share technology, as the treaty requires, with developing nations, some of them landlocked. It is a free-enterprise argument, but it smacks of an outdated colonial mentality; it stands in stark contrast to the widely accepted international principle, underscored by a UN resolution in 1969, that the world's deep seabed resources are the ``common heritage of mankind.''

Rather than stay aboard the negotiating effort to shape an outcome more to its liking, the US pulled out. Like the Reagan administration's decision not to accept the World Court's jurisdiction on the US mining of Nicaragua's harbors and its reinterpretation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the LOS walkout is another example of a White House preferring to go its own way rather than persevering to reach a global solution.

Two previous administrations had supported Law of the Sea efforts. In an effort to play down the breach, President Reagan said in March 1983 that the US accepted the balance of the treaty, 95 percent by some estimates, as binding and would act accordingly. It is a puzzling attempt to both get out and hang on - an ``anomalous'' stance, says Elliot Richardson, former chief US negotiator at the LOS talks, who gave a lecture on the topic in Boston recently.

Rather than just state its support for most of the treaty, the US, which won a number of compromises during the negotiations, should get reinvolved.

At the very least the US should participate as an observer in the treaty's preparatory commission, which is drafting the agenda, budget, and rules for the treaty's new institutions. The group held a meeting in Jamaica last month and will have a summer meeting in New York. The administration, stressing that the substance of the treaty could not be changed in such a rule-setting forum, is the only nation in the world not taking part in the commission's deliberations.

Universality is important to the authority and enforceability of the treaty. Seabed resources are a common heritage. US relations with the third world could prove more important over the long run than those with the Soviet Union. If the US wants to preserve its leadership in support of the rule of law, it must recognize that a fair LOS agreement is essential.

What do the candidates for the 1988 US presidential race have to say?

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