Orders of the Day — Law of the Sea Convention

– in the House of Commons at 1:22 am on 6th December 1984.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath 1:23 am, 6th December 1984

While I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a matter of great and growing international importance, the House this morning has to face the reality that the Cabinet almost certainly decided yesterday that Britain should not sign the law of the sea convention. The convention has been open for signature for two years. The period comes to an end on Sunday. So far, some 143 Governments have signed out of a potential 162.

I believe that the decision that the Cabinet had to make was a major one, and that the Cabinet made the wrong decision. It was a negative, shoddy and shameful decision, and fell well below the level of events.

Britain's self-interest as a great seafaring country happily coincides with our international responsibilities and obligations. It is a matter of great international importance. Seventy per cent. of the surface of the globe is covered by the sea, and the international negotiations in which Britain proudly and rightly played a major role lasted for almost three decades.

On this matter of world importance, a Conservative Government have gone out of their way to divorce themselves from Commonwealth thinking — and have done so after the most recent Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference when a powerful and unambiguous statement was produced calling for support for the convention. In 1980, the Carter Administration in the United States said that they were willing to accept the principles of the treaty which were then agreed on. Britain, under the present Government of course, followed suit, as it was clearly felt to be in our best interests. The Reagan Administration, as soon as it came into power, demanded the right to reconsider the entire package. Enlightened opinion in that country is that the United States is making a mistake in not signing the treaty. Elliot Richardson, a most distinguished former United States ambassador to the Court of St. James, said a year ago: The real importance of the Law of the Sea Convention cannot be found either in the sum of its parts or in its extraordinarily comprehensive whole. It lies rather in its demonstration of the capacity of 160 sovereign states to work out accommodations among vital competing interests. This is an achievement whose significance will loom even larger as the world increasingly finds itself forced to come to grips with its own inseparability". The House knows the reason for Britain failing to sign the convention, having previously supported it under Governments of both parties over the years. It is that President Reagan and the mining interests in the United States do not wish us to do so. As a strong supporter of the Atlantic Alliance, I claim that that is absolutely the wrong way in which to proceed. The United States' interests are not entirely the same as ours. Our U-turn suggests a willingness to be pushed around by the bigger partner.

In an editorial two years ago, The Times said: The Government's decision to go along with the United States and jettison the UN convention of the law of the sea is very much to be regretted". The editorial ended thus: Britain, as a maritime nation rightly anxious to retain her distant-water naval capability has a higher interest in the fate of this convention than anything to do with polymetallic nodules on the ocean floor. Freedom of navigation, the limits of territorial rights, development of the continental shelf, the passage of international straits, oceanic pollution, the peaceful transit of warships—these are all matters about which uncertainty has arisen … They are matters which, when uncertain are likely to give rise to conflict. They are all matters that are amenable to resolution under a system of validated international law. More recently, the Financial Times of 30 November advised: In the end, there must be some stable international legal regime for exploiting the sea-bed beyond coastal waters, if those waters are to be exploited. Difficult though it may be in practice, the Law of the Sea Convention is better built upon than demolished or ignored". I like to think that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is in favour of this international measure in principle. For the Ministry of Defence, it has great importance, especially for the Royal Navy, and for dealing with creepy crawlies and submarines. For the Department of the Environment, it has much to say about pollution; and the Department of Trade and Industry must be only too conscious of the strong support of the convention from maritime interests.

Only one part of the whole—indeed, only one part out of 17—is disputed. That is the mining aspect. The advice that I have been given is that such deep-sea mining is highly unlikely before the beginning of the next century and many experts think that it will be uneconomic for the foreseeable future. The cost of setting up a deep-sea bed mining operation is usually put at $1 billion to $1·5 billion. No investor will be prepared to commit such sums unless he has assurance that he has exclusive and unrestricted access to the mine site. The only way in which such access can be obtained is through the treaty.

I am told that Shell and BP are both potential deep-sea mining companies, as well as major shipping companies. Both have said that while they are dissatisfied with the mining provisions, the overall interests in freedom of movement must take precedence, and both companies favour signature. How much more important, therefore, is it for the Government to support the convention? Other nations with deep sea mining potential have signed, such as the Soviet Union, Japan, France and Canada.

We learnt today that the European Community is to sign those parts of the convention that it can sign, and Britain has acquiesced in this move. This has put us into a ridiculous position. It would have been far better to have reaped the rewards of signing ourselves.

In the past, Ministers have talked of Britain's increasing international importance. For example, I recall the Government's success in settling the Rhodesia issue, which had been a sore for so long. Only last night, we debated the considerable achievement of the agreement with Hong Kong. Why, then, do Ministers allow such effective and worthwhile international work to be constantly undermined by short-sighted, and sometimes penny-pinching attitudes? I think of the Government's decisions on overseas students fees, overseas aid, the external services of the BBC, the British Council, information officers overseas, and Wilton park. All these weaken our standing in the international community.

Yesterday, with one blow, the Conservative Government upset the Royal Navy, the Commonwealth and the maritime interests that are vital to our island community in the developing world in which we trade. Yesterday, they quickly took a decision that our party, our people and country, and many of our international friends will live to regret. Let wiser thoughts prevail. Let us work within the international community. Above all, for God's sake, let us have some vision.

Photo of Mr Keith Best Mr Keith Best , Ynys Môn 1:32 am, 6th December 1984

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) has made a most valuable contribution, and I congratulate him on it.

In creating a constitution for the oceans, the convention was described by Ambassador Koh of Singapore as: a monumental achievement of the international community, second only to the Charter of the United Nations. It is a convention of supreme importance for those of us who believe that world peace can be achieved only by a greater global security through international law. The convention sets out a regime that governs 70 per cent. of the surface of the globe. At Montego bay in December 1982, 119 nations were able to sign it immediately. It is an international agreement of a magnitude unparalleled in the history of the world. Is the United Kingdom to have no part in this? Where is our international responsibility to greater order in the world? The Secretary-General of the United Nations described the convention as: Like a breath of fresh air at a time of serious crisis in international co-operation and a decline in the use of international machinery for the solution of world problems. I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary three questions in November this year. I asked:

  1. "(1) if he will recommend that Her Majesty's Government should accede to the United Nations convention on the law of the sea before the deadline of 9 December.
  2. (2) which aspects of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea are still unacceptable to Her Majesty's Government; what progress has been made in the last 12 months to resolve such difficulties; and what progress he expects to make in the future;
  3. (3) if he will make a statement on the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. — [Official Report, 29 November 1984, Vol. 68, c. 591.]
I received an unsatisfactory answer—I say with respect to my hon. Friend the Minister — because it merely referred me to a reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, North (Mr. Skeet). That reply stated merely: We have as yet taken no final decision. We remain in touch with other European countries which have not signed the convention."— [Official Report, 9 November 1984, Vol. 67, c. 42.] I think that my detailed questions merited a more comprehensive reply than was given.

A parliamentary question was asked and answered today, which told us, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath said, that the European Community, whose competence on the convention is limited, will sign the convention, and the Government will not stand in its way. It is time that we took a lead. We should not be equivocal: we should be in the forefront of the EEC. Only the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy, as I understand it, have said that they will not sign. So, although we agree to the EC, of which we are a member, signing, we will not do so ourselves.

On 2 December 1982, questions were put to my hon. Friend, and he said that the Government would do their best to achieve a more satisfactory solution. I ask him to say what the Government have done positively in the last two years to fulfil that promise?

Let this Great Britain of our have the courage to lead and not just to follow. We are not, nor must we ever be perceived to be, the lap-dog of the United States, even though she may be our closest friend and ally. Unlike the United States, we have not refused to sign the treaty totally but have said that there should be improvements and that we are prepared to work for further compromise. We must do so, and the initiative must come from us.

On 29 November, I asked my hon. Friend what benefits would be lost to the United Kingdom if we failed to register under the preparatory investment protection resolution of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. I received the surprising and incomplete answer: I am not aware of any United Kingdom entity with deep seabed mining interests which wishes to take advantage of the deep seabed regime presently proposed under the United Nations law of the sea convention."—[Official Report, 29 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 591.] Yet the reality as set out in the recent excellent pamphlet on the subject by David Ward is that Britain's mining companies can enjoy special status as 'pioneer investors' only on condition that we sign the convention within the two-year signature period which expires on 9 December 1984. The privilege of virtual guaranteed access to future seabed mine sites offered under the PIP resolution was among the major concessions offered to the industrialised countries by the Group of 77 at the end of UNCLOS 3. Ironically, Britain stands to throw away the benefits gained from earlier negotiations simply because of reluctance to sign the convention, which in any case requires ratification by 60 states including Britain before it can be enforced on our mining companies.Should Britain fail to sign, our mining companies will fall behind those consortia or state enterprise that have been able to register as 'pioneer investors'. Already four countries—France, India, Japan and the USSR—have registered, which clearly indicates their intention to carry out deep-sea mining under the regime established by the convention. In particular, the Soviet Union and India have agreed an understanding to avoid competition for mine sites prior to their application for registration as 'pioneer investors'. We should be prepared to lead in Europe, in the Commonwealth and in the world. That is the aspiration of every hon. Member and every citizen. Especially of this Government, who have done so much to restore our international prestige and position, we have a right to demand it. The eyes of the world are on my hon. Friend when he responds to the debate. I hope that he is able to do so with sufficiency of purpose. Our country's influence is crucial and will determine the success or failure of the law of the sea.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed , Bristol East 1:38 am, 6th December 1984

It is a great pleasure to support my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) and for Ynys MÔn (Mr. Best). It is regrettable that the only hon. Members present are Conservatives. We keep hearing from the Opposition that the Labour party, the Liberals and the SDP are worried about this matter, but tonight they are absent. It is a great shame, because this is a national and an international issue.

I understand that the Government are saying that they do not intend to sign this treaty on the basis that they do not intend to ratify it and therefore they do not sign what they do not intend to ratify. I understand that point of view. I also understand and share the Government's considerable disquiet with part XI, dealing with deep-sea mining. It is substantially flawed, but it is my belief that in the main the convention produces such considerable benefits for us that if we sign without ratification we can engineer changes in the convention that will allow part XI to be amended so that it is acceptable to the nation.

The Government say that they will not sign that which they will not ratify. However, there have been occasions when they have signed but not ratified. I shall give three examples. In 1971, we signed the International Maritime Organisation convention on liability for the carriage of nuclear materials in ships at sea. We have not yet ratified it. In 1977, we signed the north-west European offshore civil liability convention. We have not yet ratified it. Again in 1977, we signed an important convention, the Geneva convention on the laws of war. We have not yet ratified it.

I suggest that we should take as an example the 1973 Marpol convention of the IMO. We ratified it only in 1980. We did so only after a protocol had been negotiated to amend the convention before it came into force, allowing us to accept some but not all of the annexes. That is a good precedent for us to follow. We can sign with honour the convention on the law of the sea. We do not need to ratify it until we have negotiated far more sensible arrangements on part XI. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that approach and, therefore, to urge on his right hon. and learned Friend that we sign the convention and work for a much fairer system in part XI. The convention will stop, or at least contain, maritime anarchy, and that is desperately important.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 1:41 am, 6th December 1984

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for affording me two minutes during his excellent Adjournment debate to make my contribution on my own behalf and on that of the the United Nations Association in my constituency. I support the wisdom and faith in his words and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best) and for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) in major respects.

We must, for the sake of British trade interests, settle and codify international maritime law, especially navigational rights. Secondly, we must settle now, well before commercial interests run riot in the next century, the deep-sea mining problem. We are storing up trouble for ourselves from the year 2000 onwards and we must have the foresight to deal with it. Thirdly, we must show confidence in the concepts of the Commonwealth, the European Community and, above all, the United Nations. There is no better way of doing that than by signing the convention on the law of the sea.

I believe that the opposite of co-operation is isolationism, that of foresight is narrowmindedness, and that of generosity is greed.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Ritkind):

I very much agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) when he spoke of the seriousness and importance of the subject. I can assure him and my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys MÔn (Mr. Best), for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) and for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) that the Government attach the same importance to it. I can confirm that the Government's view has not changed from the one expressed in 1982 and that we have taken the decision that Britain should not sign the United Nations law of the sea convention.

Although 9 December is the last date on which signatures can be attached to the convention, it remains open for accession by states after that date. It would be open to the United Kingdom, or to other countries which have not signed, to become a party to the convention if in future it is improved in a way that we would find appropriate.

We have decided that, although we cannot sign the convention, we shall not object to the signature of the European Community being attached to it. The Community's competence is limited to fisheries, pollution, customs matters between landlocked states and commercial policy to a limited extent. There is nothing illogical in us not objecting to the Community's signature. The parts of the convention for which the Community is competent are parts to which we do not object. We should have been happy to sign the convention if it had dealt only with those issues.

I take exception to the idea that the United Kingdom is simply following United States policy without considering the British national interest. I urge my hon. Friends to reflect on that accusation, because it is unworthy. We have not followed the United States. We have insisted on participating in the preparatory commission and have shown our willingness in certain circumstances to accept the desirability of signing the convention, while the United States has taken a harsher position on most of the issues.

The suggestion that the countries which have refused to sign the convention are the lapdogs of the United States does not hold much water when one sees the list of countries which have refused to sign the convention. Over 30 countries, including those well-known followers of America such as Libya, Nicaragua and Albania, as well as many countries with varying political complexions, have refused to sign.

When about 14 years ago we entered the negotiations on this convention, the United Kingdom hoped for agreement on a comprehensive regime on marine matters which was generally acceptable to all nations. In the latter part of the conference it became clear that agreement could not be reached on the provisions related to deep sea-bed mining. Instead of being adopted by concensus, the text of the convention was put to a vote, in which the United Kingdom abstained.

Although much of the convention was recognised as valuable, the proposed regime for deep sea-bed mining was unacceptable to almost all the states which had the capacity to develop the industry. Although some countries involved in deep sea-bed mining might have signed the convention, all the western countries with an interest in the industry have made it clear that they do not intend to ratify the treaty unless substantial changes are made to it. Only ratification will introduce new rights or obligations.

We came to the position which I have described to the House on 2 December 1982. We were not prepared to sign the convention with the current mining regime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn asked what we have done in the last few years. We have tried to influence the improvement of the convention. We have faithfully followed that objective. We have participated to the extent that our being non-signatories made possible. We have put forward proposals and ideas and have fully participated in attempts to improve the convention. However, that has not produced the results for which we hoped.

We have a number of objections to the mining regime—the onerous financial and other terms governing the participation of commercial operators, the cost that would accrue to this Government of supporting the over-elaborate structure of the authority and the activities of its operating arm—the Enterprise.

I shall explain the costs. For example, the fixed administrative cost of ratification at 1983 prices, with the sea-bed mining provisions unaltered and in force, would for the United Kingdom be between £3·6 million and £8 million. Running administrative costs would be between £1·5 million and £1·8 million.

In addition, the estimated cost to the United Kingdom of financing the Enterprise on the present basis would be between £25 million and £40 million in interest-free loans, plus the same amount in debt guarantees. That is on the assumption that the United States is also participating in the convention and paying its 33 per cent. share of the total cost. Since we know that the United States has no intention of participating, we have to add about 33 per cent. to those figures. Very large sums are therefore involved for a profoundly unattractive regime.

A further objection is the undesirable regulatory powers of the authority, in relation to production limitations, for example. In addition, there is the mandatory transfer of technology which sets an unacceptable precident which cannot have attracted any of my hon. Friends.

Finally, it is proposed that there should be a review conference 15 years after commercial mining commences. That review conference could force through an even more unattractive deep sea-bed mining regime through the use of the majority vote by which countries that had no deep sea bed mining interest of their own could enforce their views on those that did and were paying for the whole operation.

Our delegation to the preparatory commission went to considerable lengths to put across our views and to open up possibilities for obtaining improvements, but only a few limited technical proposals met with any response. Accordingly, the balance of advantage had to be decided between the greater part of the convention which is acceptable, but much of which is codification of existing laws, and significant aspects which are unacceptable to us. Those parts of the convention which cause us difficulty raise such significant problems that it would not be in our interest to sign. Moreover, none of the benefits to us in the convention is certain or, indeed, will take effect until the convention comes into force. There may be 138 signatories to the convention, but only 14 countries have so far ratified, and the convention will enter into force only after 60 states have ratified or acceded. There is no legal status under the convention which has not yet entered into force.

Some people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys MÔn, have suggested that, by not signing, the United Kingdom loses the possibility for our companies to operate as pioneer investors under the convention's final Act. However, the terms are unattractive, and no United Kingdom entity interested in sea bed mining has indicated to us a wish to take advantage of those provisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East has argued that we should sign the convention and show a commitment to it in the hope that the preparatory commission will listen to our concerns. As I have mentioned to the House, it is not our practice in the United Kingdom to sign international treaties that we do not think we will be able to ratify. We are not in a position to undertake to ratify the United Nations law of the sea convention. Even those who favour signature would regard ratification of the present convention as against our interests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East mentioned various examples which he described as precedents—there is no such thing. The examples he cited are not cases where we signed a convention or a treaty in the declared knowledge that we did not intend to ratify them. In some cases there have been reasons that delayed ratification. The original signature may have been rendered inappropriate in the light of the new, changed circumstances. There is no precedent for the United Kingdom to sign a convention that it already knows it cannot ratify. That is an important consideration.

I must emphasise the fact that all the major European Community countries and other countries such as Japan which have signed the convention have made it clear that they will not ratify the convention. It may be acceptable to them to sign treaties that they do not intend ratifying, but that is not a principle that has carried weight in the United Kingdom. I should be surprised if my hon. Friends were suggesting that we should go back on a basic principle of our approach to international treaties, simply because it might have a beneficial political effect on our international relations.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o'clock.