Law of the Sea, Revisited

August 15, 1994

This country's decision to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty is welcome. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, explaining the move, said that objectionable features had been amended out after a year of negotiating. (President Reagan had refused to sign because of these unpalatable features in 1982.) This assertion deserves tough Senate scrutiny, which Republicans and conservatives ensure it will get, before ratification.

The world needs a modern law of the sea regime. U.S. interest requires the right of navigation through international straits and world agreement on territorial waters and exclusive economic zones and on commercial exploitation.

Most of the treaty provisions, argued out through the 1970s, address these needs, serve the U.S. national interest and have come into general acceptance. These include the 12-mile territorial waters; the 200-mile economic zone, a band 188 miles beyond territorial waters in which the adjoining nation governs fishery, oil and other exploitation; and the right of passage through international straits, vital to the interests of the U.S. Navy.

The sticking point was commercial exploitation of the deep seabed beyond the economic zone. With Third World ideology and socialist premises ascendant, the original draft penalized companies and sought to transfer wealth and technology to the poorest countries. The treaty provided for a seabed panel to accomplish these aims. Everyone agreed the oceans are the "common heritage of mankind," to be shared equitably. They disagreed on what that meant.

The trouble is that riches in the deep are, so far, pie in the sky. World prices of the minerals abundant on the deep sea floor have not economically justified scooping them up. Some day that may change. The need for the full force of international law on the current uses of the oceans is immediate and undiminished. Third World ideology has receded from 1970s fantasies to 1990s realism.

Sixty-one nations have ratified this treaty, which comes into force in November with or without the U.S. Mr. Christopher told senators that the U.S. has negotiated with 50 nations to amend the mining section of the treaty, removing the punitive features and increasing developed nations' clout on the International Seabed Authority. It will be healthy for the world and the U.S. if Mr. Christopher's claims are borne out.

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