Strife on the seven seas

Strife on the seven seas

The resources of the world’s oceans, from fish to oil and minerals, are vast but limited. And it is becoming increasingly clear that nations will be increasingly concerned about how these maritime riches should be divided.

Fortunately, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a comprehensive and reasonably robust framework for the peaceful resolution of such disputes – and much more. Less fortunately, the US Senate has yet to ratify the country’s membership of the Convention.

It must do so immediately, so that the United States can play an evolving role in the development of the framework established by the treaty. The same logic applies to the two dozen or so other countries, from Turkey to Peru, that have yet to ratify the convention.

The current, prolonged surge in the prices of oil, gas and minerals is bringing to the fore resource issues that the UN convention was designed to help unresolved. Last week’s placement of a Russian flag at sea level over the North Pole (see Nature 448, 520-521; doi: 10.1038/448520b 2007) offered a fitting melodramatic foreshadowing of the difficulties that nations would have to engage in scuffles. Chances are. for the oceans.

And it will not be only the old European powers that will stake their claim. In this issue, we report how India’s oceanographic research interests, for example, are already expanding from the equator to the poles (see page 642). When humans were no longer capable of harming the ocean – skating across its surface in wooden boats and carrying relatively small amounts of resources – this could be a lawless common. But now our society should manage the sea very carefully, lest the water becomes lifeless.

As in any other scientific discipline, oceanography is inextricably linked with the material and military exploitation of the field it studies. The United Nations Convention sets out the factors that determine which waters fall under each nation’s economic control.

The Russian flag under water is only a symbolic component of an ongoing petition about its maritime rights, which is linked to geology. If Russia can convince a commission set up under the Convention that its continental shelf actually extends beneath Arctic ice, it would be able to claim exclusive rights over valuable oil and gas deposits.

The Convention also sets out rules for shipping: protecting the right of ‘flawless passage’ for ships to pass through territorial waters without special permission. It prohibits piracy and requires environmental safeguards, for example, that nations set sustainable fishing policies and avoid harming the interests of other nations with pollution from their waters. .

And it does not include the right to conduct scientific research anywhere on a vast area of ​​ocean controlled by any country, so long as the work is peaceful, non-commercial and freely disseminated. The scope of the treaty may expand as new issues emerge: at the most recent meeting of the conference, in New York in May, a framework for dealing with marine genetic resources was discussed.

In practice, the United States already follows all of these provisions. So why has the treaty lapsed since 1994 without its ratification even on the Senate floor? At one point, the opposition focused on a clause on seabed mining, which representatives of some countries considered too restrictive.

But since it was rewritten, even in 1994, protests have largely been confined to a dozen or so conservative senators who philosophically oppose the encroachment of UN rules, which they regard as a sovereign nation. as the rights of the United States.

Everyone else, from environmental lobbies and the oil industry to the US Navy and the administration of President George W. Bush, are now publicly supporting ratification. Last week’s flag-raising prompted a State Department spokesman to call on the Senate to ratify the law in its interests of the United States, saying he “hopes to see it when Congress returns to session.” They will give due consideration to it”.

It is up to Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to bring a proposal for ratification through his committee to the Senate floor. He should do so at the earliest opportunity available.

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