Power, Mobility and the Law of the Sea

In the late summer of 1979 the Norfolk (Va.) Ledger Star based a lead story on the leak of a classified communication from the naval command there (CINCLANT) to units of the Atlantic fleet, laying out procedures to be followed by the U.S. government in protecting traditional high-seas freedoms. Three days later The New York Times picked up the story, running it on the front page under the headline, "U.S. Will Challenge Coastal Sea Claims That Exceed Three Miles." The United States, said the Times, "ordered the Navy and Air Force to undertake a policy of deliberately sending ships and planes into or over the disputed waters of nations that claim a territorial limit of more than the three miles accepted by the United States and 22 other nations." A decision had been taken, the story said, to "show a more active interest . . . because simply protesting diplomatically about such limits would not be effective."1

On the day that the Times story appeared, the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea was in the fourth week of its Resumed Eighth Session at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Launched at Caracas in 1974 and representing 160 countries-eight more than the U.N. itself-the Conference had succeeded during the intervening years in making remarkable progress on the most ambitious agenda ever attempted by a multilateral law-making forum. Substantial consensus had been reached on issues ranging from navigation and overflight, the conservation and management of fisheries resources, the protection of the marine environment, and the exploitation of oil and gas in the continental shelf, to marine scientific research and a carefully balanced system of compulsory dispute settlement. The results were embodied in a text containing nearly 400 articles of which fewer than ten percent remained controversial. By far the most troublesome issues still unresolved concerned the regime for deep seabed mining, which necessitated designing a new kind of international institution responsible to the world community as a whole. Only a handful of other substantive issues still awaited resolution. Delegates were at last beginning to believe that an effort which had come so far might yet confound the skepticism that had always surrounded it.

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