Rite of Passage: US Accepts Sea Treaty But Senate Approval Still Needed

BY signing the most controversial part of the Law of the Sea treaty today, the Clinton administration is putting the United States' belated stamp of approval on one of the most ambitious experiments ever undertaken in international lawmaking.

``In scale and scope it is unprecedented,'' says State Department expert Wesley Scholz of the treaty, which is known formally as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and which will take effect on Nov. 16. ``It is the largest and most complex multilateral treaty that has ever been negotiated.''

The Convention has been ratified by 63 nations but, until now, has been opposed by the US and other industrial nations because of provisions that restrict private enterprises now exploring ways to mine deposits of manganese, copper, nickel, and cobalt found on the ocean floor. A renegotiated version of the seabed-mining provisions, contained in Part XI of the treaty, has now won US acceptance. The revised Part XI will be signed in New York today by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, opening the door, Clinton administration officials hope, to ratification of the full Convention by the US Senate and the other industrialized nations.

Senate approval

If the Senate ratifies the treaty, including the amended seabed-mining provisions, the US will formally ``accede'' to the Convention, meaning that it will become a party to it without being an actual signatory.

The treaty's 320 articles and nine annexes, some of which codify what has already evolved as customary international law, lay down ground rules for everything from dumping garbage in the oceans to fishing and the protection of the marine environment. In addition, they bestow on coastal nations a territorial water limit of 12 miles, an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles, and mineral rights over the continental shelf.

Despite extensive revisions, the seabed mining provisions of Part XI are still the main source of controversy and are expected to be the focus of congressional hearings next month. Last week, two dozen lawmakers in the House and Senate floated resolutions opposing the treaty, charging that it would discriminate against private concerns that have already invested millions of dollars exploring seabed minerals and force them to share their revenues with less-developed nations. Developing countries have insisted that the mineral riches of the seabed are the ``common heritage of mankind.'' The treaty is also opposed by conservative groups arguing that the new regime for the oceans defined in the treaty is a form of world government that weakens the sovereignty of individual nations.

But when the Senate reviews the full treaty, probably next spring, it is likely to be backed by some of the largest US corporations, which now have a huge economic stake in ratification. Among major beneficiaries will be giant telecommunications companies, like AT&T, which have spent huge sums laying undersea cables. The treaty guarantees the right to lay and maintain cables and requires coastal states to prevent their damaged.

Likewise, by defining precisely and permanently the limits of the continental shelf, the treaty will remove jurisdictional uncertainties that have complicated the offshore drilling operations of oil and gas companies. The oil companies and other commercial shippers are also benefited by the treaty's guarantee of unrestricted movement of tankers and cargo ships through territorial waters. A similar right of ``innocent passage'' for warships through territorial waters, economic zones, and straits has elicited Pentagon support for the treaty. The treaty also enjoys the backing of most environmental groups.

High recovery costs

Experts estimate that mining the ocean floor will not be commercially viable for a decade or more because mineral prices are now too low and recovery costs too high. New extraction technologies would help, however, and the demand-supply picture could drive mineral prices up.

US officials have responded to critics of Part XI, saying it no longer calls for production limits and technology transfers and gives the US a virtual veto over the decisions of the ``Enterprise,'' the commercial arm of the International Seabed Authority established by the treaty.

Negotiations on a treaty to regulate the use of the seas were begun in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1974. After intermittent sessions the conferees came up with a draft treaty in 1982. The deadlock over Part XI was broken during informal negotiations among a small group of developing and industrial nations, including the US, that were launched under UN auspices in 1990.

``We will be able, with our allies, to control the decisionmaking process,'' a senior State Department official told reporters recently.

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