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Law Of The Sea Conference

Volume 375: debated on Monday 11 October 1976

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what were the conclusions of the Law of the Sea Conference in New York.

My Lords, the overall achievements of the Fifth Session, which ended on 17th September, were somewhat disappointing. In particular there was little real advance towards a consensus of the régime for exploiting deep sea-bed minerals beyond national jurisdiction. However, progress was made on a number of other issues. The outstanding issues are now very clear. Given realism and the will to succeed on all sides they should be susceptible to solution at the next session of the Conference next May.

My Lords, while welcoming the realism of that Answer, may I ask the Minister whether it is not the case that unilateral decisions have now been taken by nearly all the nations of the West regarding fishing limits, and that legislation has been introduced in the American Congress for unilateral decision about the exploitation of minerals under the ocean? In these circumstances will the British Government do their utmost before the meeting in May to reach an international solution of these problems?

Yes, indeed, my Lords. We have made absolutely clear from the very start of the Conference, and we continue to make it clear, that we greatly prefer consensus decision and movement in these matters. It is unfortunate that so much unilateral action has been taken and is projected. We shall continue to do our utmost to secure decision and advance on a multilateral basis.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that so far as this country is concerned the most urgent matter is new fishing limits, which is of great importance to our fishermen, and that we must extend our fishing limit to 200 miles when the other principal fishing nations do so in accordance with the consensus already reached at the Conference?

My Lords, I welcome that question because it stresses the fact that there is already an informal consensus on this matter and therefore, we think, little more negotiation is necessary to make it quite formal. The United Kingdom has of course been supporting at the Conference the régime on fisheries which appears in the negotiating text, and this would provide for an economic zone in this matter of up to 200 miles. We have said in Brussels, and continue to say, that we would hope to move in this matter with other countries, other participants in the Conference, but of course like other countries we would have to consider whether we had not the duty and obligation to our own population to institute unilateral action which, in the context of so much unilateral action in this matter by other countries, would in fact be multilateral.

My Lords, may I ask whether the Government in particular will seek to secure for the landlocked, or the disadvantaged, nations a share of the mineral and fishing resources under the heritage of the oceans, and, secondly, the right, under the international authority of all nations rather than private corporations to enjoy the minerals under the oceans?

Yes, my Lords. Without going into technical detail I can give the assurance that we shall do our utmost to secure both objectives.

My Lords, in view of the noble Lord's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, may I ask why it is that the East European fishing fleets are still hoovering the Channel off the South-West of England?

My Lords, one is hopeful that there is consensus in the way the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has urged, with which I do not fundamentally agree, though one had hoped that if such a consensus is in fact reached that kind of intrusion into our fisheries will not in future happen.

My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the group known as the landlocked and geographically disadvantaged States is a somewhat unexpected one which includes, among others, West Germany, Belgium and Holland?

Yes, indeed, my Lords, and the lines of, I shall not say confrontation but of dispute on this matter are not very easy to draw. They can he drawn horizontally as between North and South, between developed and developing, and, as the noble Lord indicated, can be drawn right through the middle of Europe. This is an important matter. We would seek to get substantial justice for landlocked and geographically disadvantaged States. It is not an easy matter to solve, and the only way to go about it is by constant examination not only of the merits of the matter but also of certain implications that might flow from taking decisions on this kind of disadvantage. There are other kinds of disadvantage that affect other nations.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the answers that he has sought to give to this particular Question have been given with the object of trying to allay our fears? But would he not agree that there seems to be little affinity or compromise on the part of other nations in regard to the United Kingdom on this particular issue? Would he not agree that it seems rather remarkable that it has got to take at least another year before we have another Conference, a united Conference of all the nations involved, on this major issue in which we are so interested?

My Lords, I agree that this Conference is taking longer than any of us would wish. However, it is a very complicated and many sided question affecting all the nations of the world and, as I have said before, five-sevenths of the surface of the world. As to the difference of view between the United Kingdom and other nations, this, I fear, is common to all the groups and individual members of this Conference. I would say to my noble friend, who clearly has been following these complicated discussions closely, that on the whole the United Kingdom, in what it has been proposing and in the way in which it has been helping to accommodate negotiation, is probably in the maintsream of what we hope is an emerging consensus on most of these matters.

In conclusion, may I ask my noble friend whether, in view of the appalling delays at these Conferences about procedural points before the issues are really discussed, the representatives of Her Majesty's Government will do their utmost at the coming Conference to secure an end to the confrontation between the developing and the developed countries and the landlocked and the ocean nations?

Yes, of course, my Lords. That is our policy and intention. We think we have done quite a lot already to press matters in that direction and certainly we hope to do more.