BEFORE the end of 1993, enough nations are expected to have ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for it to come officially into effect.
But several key nations, possibly including the United States, will not be among the signatories.
American participation in the framing of UNCLOS from 1970 to 1982 was led by Elliot Richardson, former US Attorney General, US Ambassador to Britain, and holder of many other state and national posts.
Despite its leading role in framing the Sea Law, the US did not sign UNCLOS during the 12-year Republican administration of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Other Western nations, including Britain and Germany, have not signed the convention. Ratification by 56 of the 156 nations that signed the convention is needed to make it international law.
At this writing, six more signatures are needed; it is expected that they will be obtained and UNCLOS will become effective. America should be in the forefront of those making it an effective reality. The main reason for US failure to ratify the Law of the Sea, according to Mr. Richardson and others, is Washington's concern that it does not sufficiently protect America's rights in eventual mining of the seabed for valuable minerals.
Critics argue, however, that exploitation of undersea resources is much further in the future than was once surmised. Availability of surface resources at substantially lower cost is seen as extending well into the next century.
Also, both the former Secretary General of the UN, Javier Perez de Cuellar, and his successor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, have worked to modify the seabed-mining provisions to make them more palatable to the large industrial nations.
Another important argument for full ratification and support of UNCLOS by the major powers is that it will facilitate prevention and handling of accidents and disputes on the seas. The new Clinton administration, distracted by the process of taking office and preoccupied by the need to push its domestic policies, apparently has given little attention to UNCLOS.
In a recent congressional hearing, Secretary of State Warren Christopher indicated only peripheral knowledge about ratification of the Law of the Sea, saying: "I'm just getting reacquainted in that area. There is only one aspect of the Law of the Sea Treaty to which we have not been able to give approval, and that, I believe, is the deep seabed regime...."
We hope that someone in the State Department who is more up to date on UNCLOS will see the importance of US ratification of the Sea Law.