Law of the Sea: Breaking the Deadlock

The negotiations at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, aimed at concluding a comprehensive and universally acceptable Convention on the Law of the Sea, are deadlocked over three critical issues: the legal status of the agreed 200-mile economic zone, a regime for exploiting the resources of the deep seabed, and the rights of landlocked and geographically disadvantaged states. Five arduous sessions of the Conference have produced a negotiating text that promises agreement on other issues of considerable importance to the United States as well as to other nations. However, the achievement of a convention consolidating these gains turns upon the resolution of the deadlocking issues.

This article argues that reasonable compromise on the three crucial deadlocking areas is indeed feasible, and that failure to achieve agreement will have consequences that would be serious and potentially disastrous in two respects: first, there would be a renewed wave of unilateral claims and actions respecting the oceans themselves, which could readily lead to outright conflict and certainly to serious friction; and second, a failure in this test case of the possibility of universal negotiation can only cast a very dark shadow indeed on other negotiations aimed at resolving problems that exist between the developed and the developing countries.


The present Conference has its origin in the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s to protect their strategic interests in transiting the oceans, particularly international straits. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the preliminary negotiations took on a more internationalist and humanitarian hue as the Ambassador from Malta, Arvid Pardo, presented his world view of an international ocean regime, and the United Nations, in a formal Resolution, dubbed the deep seabed the "Common Heritage of Mankind."1 Subsequently, the economic issues in this negotiation have become increasingly linked to the broader objectives of the Group of 77 developing nations - actually now exceeding 110 - and to their efforts to give flesh to the "New

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