Later this month, people from more than 150 countries will travel to Geneva, Switzerland, to put the finishing touches on an international treaty on the oceans.
But there will be one major problem. At the eleventh hour, the United States is balking and, in effect, vetoing the Law of the Sea treaty agreement; this, after having given its concurrence to each section of the treaty during negotiations over the past seven years.
Why the U. S. flip-flop? The purpose of the treaty is to govern the unclaimed ocean frontier and regulate behavior on the high seas. The treaty versions hammered out by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations included some principles of sharing. The Reagan administration's plan for the oceans involves only taking. Reagan wants the oceans to be like the prairies and hills of the Wild West; those who get there first, get it first.
The treaty came about because countries were enforcing different rules on how close to their shores foreign ships were permitted to sail. Commercially and militarily, the U.S. was very anxious to have guaranteed access through the more than 100 narrow water channels in the world where countries can restrict passage. To the eager satisfaction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the last version of the treaty secured the right of passage for all nations.
But the controversial treaty issue for the U.S. had to do with regulating the removal of valuable materials from deep sea beds beyond territorial waters. Whose resources are they? And who should benefit from their development? Apart from the question of ownership, who will police and tax ocean activities to restrain corporations from churning up the ocean into a cesspool of refuse for their own profit?