US Senate Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty

By David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs . | The Christian Science Monitor, July 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

US Senate Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty


David D. Newsom. David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE United States, having renegotiated some of the terms, is now ready to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This decision, a further step in a two-decade diplomatic saga, was announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Secretary of State Warren Christopher on June 30; a US signature now awaits only Senate ratification.

The UN conference to reconcile several unresolved issues regarding the use of the seas was convened in 1973. After a series of plenary meetings interspersed by working sessions, the conference approved a text in 1982. Although an active participant in the talks, the US under the new Reagan administration found serious fault with the treaty and voted against it, joined by Turkey, Israel, and Venezuela. Nevertheless, the requisite number of countries have now ratified the convention and it will take effect in November.

Certain provisions that codify maritime regulations definitely benefit the US, a major military and maritime power. Representatives of the Department of Defense were skeptical of the treaty process at first, but they now support it. The principle of "innocent passage" for warships through the 12-mile limit of territorial seas and the 200-mile economic zones has been accepted. Beyond that, the major maritime powers gained the right of free transit through international straits (such as Gibraltar and Malacca) by agreeing that archipelago states like Indonesia and the Philippines could establish special transit regimes within their island waters.

The Reagan administration, however, found unacceptable Part XI, which established an International Seabed Authority to control deep-sea mining. Technology developed by the industrial nations in the last 30 years makes extracting minerals from the ocean floor economically viable. Nodules averaging about an inch and a half in diameter composed largely of manganese, with traces of copper, nickel, cobalt, and other minerals, are found in many areas of the ocean floor. In the Pacific alone, there may be as much as 1.5 million tons of such minerals. …

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