Law of the Sea Convention

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1984.

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Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Walthamstow 12:00 am, 25th July 1984

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what consultations he has had about the United Kingdom signing the United Nations law of the sea convention; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The United Kingdom has had consultations with a wide range of countries on this subject. Our policy towards the convention remains that improvements to the mining regime are required. We shall be continuing efforts to secure these improvements at next month's meeting of the preparatory commission.

Photo of Mr Eric Deakins Mr Eric Deakins , Walthamstow

Is it not in our economic, strategic and political interests to sign the convention by 10 December 1984? Is the Minister not aware that the bulk of British industry would like us to sign? Why, therefore, does he alone continue to kow-tow to the White House?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman has simply not studied the matter if he thinks that Britain is alone in this respect. No fewer than 35 countries have yet to sign the convention, including half the members of the European Community. We are seeking improvements to the convention. Even if we have not signed it by December, the treaty, once ratified, will be open to accession by any country. If in the future we are able to achieve substantial changes to the present convention, that will be the time to consider whether we shall be a party to it.

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test

Is my hon. Friend aware that only last week the Department of State in Washington stated that it would not be signing the convention and, furthermore, that it would put up various options to the private sector? Is he aware of this latest United States move?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

That statement is in accordance with what the united States has previously said. Many countries who have signed the convention will not necessarily be ratifying it. More than 100 countries have signed it, but so far only 12 have ratified. It is not the United Kingdom's normal practice to sign a convention unless we feel able to ratify it in due course.

Photo of Mr Dick Douglas Mr Dick Douglas , Dunfermline West

Does the Minister accept that the major obstacle for the United Kingdom is the deep ocean mining provisions? Which firms in the United Kingdom are taking advantage of existing legislation, or are they waiting until the United Kingdom clears this matter up by acceding to the provisions of the treaty?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am not aware of any United Kingdom entity with an interest in deep seabed mining which would wish to take advantage of the law of the sea convention's final act enabling registration as a pioneer investor. While the hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the controversial part of the convention is the deep seabed mining regime, the provisions for compulsory transfer of technology and the expense involved are deeply disliked by British industry, for reasons which the Government fully share.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Does my hon. Friend appreciate the Commonwealth support for this convention and the advantages that it will bring to the Department of Energy, the Department of the Environment in terms of pollution control and the Ministry of Defence? Does he agree that in this area we do not have to follow the United States slavishly, bearing in mind the number of extremely influential Americans who are wholly opposed to President Reagan's attitude to the convention?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

As I have already mentioned, no less than half the European Community, and about 35 countries in total, have not yet thought fit to sign the convention. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that, apart from deep seabed mining, many parts of the convention are perfectly acceptable to the United Kingdom as well as to other countries. The difficulty which this and many other Governments face is that one must either accept the convention as a whole or reject it. It is not possible to accept only those parts that might be thought suitable.

Photo of Dr Maurice Miller Dr Maurice Miller , East Kilbride

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the convention is deficient in at least one aspect, in that no mention is made of the men and women who sail on the seas, nor is there any mention of their conditions or the dangers involved in their work? Before he signs the convention—and I urge him to do so—will he make representations on their behalf?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the existing provisions of the convention are inadequate, I hope that he will give full support to the Government's attempts to amend them.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is the Minister aware that there are precedents when we have signed conventions and not gone on eventually to ratify. The Minister is well aware that this is a package, a balance of rights and a crucial element in the North-South dialogue. Does he place any weight on the fact that the CBI, BP, Shell and the General Council of British Shipping are very much in favour of our signing the convention? If we do not do so by 10 December, we shall lose our full voting rights in the preparatory commission. Is this not another example of us showing our indifference to the Third world, ditching United Kingdom maritime interests and following the narrow interests of United States mining concerns?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman said that there are precedents when we have signed a treaty and not subsequently ratified it. That may be the case where there have been subsequent developments that have made it inappropriate to ratify a treaty or convention, but I am not aware of any precedent when Her Majesty's Government have signed a treaty or convention in the knowledge that they would be unable to ratify it because of its terms. That would be an unattractive principle in international law and not one which the hon. Gentleman would wish to commend to the House.