The United Nations' conference on the law of the Sea, which opens in Caracas, Venezuela, this week, faces some of the most important international questions of the day -- the answers to which will affect the economic well-being of almost every nation in the world.
The United Nations' conference on the law of the Sea, which opens in Caracas, Venezuela, this week, faces some of the most important international questions of the day -- the answers to which will affect the economic well-being of almost every nation in the world. Fundamentally, it is being asked to decide -- who owns the oceans?
This is the third conference no the law of the sea, but the previous two have left the question largely unanswered. In consequence, the claims of individual nations on the sea around their coast often conflict and overlap. Some countries claim their sovereignty extends three miles out to sea. This is an historical limit, set in the days when three miles was as far as a cannon could hit an approaching invader. Others claim six, twelve, fifty and even 200-mile limits.
Today's calculations are made, more often, no the untapped wealth on the seabed. The advent of off-shore oil has made ownership coastal waters vitally important, especially to those nations -- like Britain -- which have found prospects of new wealth and energy sources well beyond their shallow coastal waters.
Oil represents a new problem. But one which has exercised many nations for many years is the conflict over the right to fish in disputed areas of the sea. This squabble has erupted twice in the rich fishing grounds off Iceland, heavily fished by British trawlers and also by German and other continental fleets.
Two years ago, the Icelandic government arbitrarily extended its territorial limits to fifty miles, putting some of the best fishing grounds within its limit. Britain insisted the fishing grounds were international waters and continued to trawl, with the result that, before some agreement was reached, trawlers went to sea with gunboat escorts and shots were exchanged.
The fights involved in such questions are delicately balanced. Iceland, for instance, depends almost entirely on its fishing industry for survival and fears that the seas around its coasts will be fished to exhaustion unless protected. On the other hand, these same waters are a traditional food source for Britain.
Similar claims and counter-claims are being made around the world. And not only fishing rights are at stake, but the whole range of mineral explorations which are now opening up off the coasts of Asia, Africa and South America. For the nations concerned, unhindered development of these resources will be creche in the future. Naturally, they want to protect them.
It seems likely that the Caracas conference will be no more successful in reaching final conclusions this year. Already, a further conference is scheduled for Vienna next year.
But well over 90 nations are sending delegates to Caracas, signifying the importance of the discussions. Even some land-locked countries with no coastline are attending, with proposals that they, too, are allowed access to the riches of the seabed. And a further issue concerns the right of access through narrow waters, such as the English Channel and the Malacca Straits -- both vital to maritime trade -- which must remain international maritime highways.
It is likely that the delegates in Caracas will settle for a two-tier recommendation, backed by most of the larger nations, which talks of 200-mile limits of fishing rights and 12-mile rights for seabed exploration.
Such are the conflicting interests of the nations, however, that it will demand unlimited goodwill and compromise of there is to be any lasting agreement on the law of the sea.