HC Deb 13 June 1973 vol 857 cc1482-4
22. Mr. Laurance Reed

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs why the British delegate abstained from voting on the United Nations Resolution of 18th December last, concerning the sovereignty of coastal States over natural resources in waters above the Continental Shelf.

Mr. Amery

Certain passages in the resolution were not acceptable to Her Majesty's Government. They carried implications inconsistent with international law and sought to prejudice the forthcoming Law of the Sea Conference.

Mr. Reed

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the voting on the resolution was 102 to nil? In view of that overwhelming expression of international opinion, will he explain how he intends to maintain his refusal to recognise Iceland's right to fish above its own Continental Shelf? We have all heard of Horatius defending his bridge, but with odds like this even he would have agreed to call it a day.

Mr. Amery

Present international law gives no support to claims for exclusive fisheries jurisdiction exceeding 12 miles. No doubt there may be changes as a result of the Law of the Sea Conference which assembles in April 1974. I should have thought that Iceland would do well to co-operate in working out an agreed solution at the conference. In fact, it has tried to extend its limits unilaterally, and has tried to repudiate its binding agreement, which was reached with us in 1961, thus flouting the ruling of the International Court.

Mr. Maclennan

Is not the Minister reflecting a somewhat too inflexible Government attitude to the development of international law? Is not a resolution of the United Nations a source of international law which would be taken into account in the jurisdiction of the International Court and which has been taken into account in the past? Is this not a remarkable academic approach, and the kind of approach that brings international law into disrepute?

Mr. Amery

I should have thought that nothing was more calculated to bring international law into disrepute than to follow a course contrary to international law while the law still stands. That is surely the basis on which our whole activity in this House is founded—namely, that the law has to be observed until it is changed. We still have very little idea of what the outcome of the Law of the Sea Conference will be. It is not very far ahead. In fact, it meets next year.

Mr. Grieve

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the law of the sea is probably the greatest achievement of international law and that many people, not only in Great Britain but in many other countries, hope that Her Majesty's Government will set their face against unilateral abrogation and unilateral changes, from whatever source? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this and all other allied matters, such as the limits of territorial waters and jurisdiction over the Continental Shelf, are best left to the forthcoming Conference on the Law of the Sea?

Mr. Amery

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend is right.

Mr. Callaghan

Surely, in this imperfect world it is even more necessary for small nations to accept the law as it stands than for large nations, especially if they expect the law to be changed, and for others to preserve it in due course? That having been said, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us are increasingly concerned that the Government may get themselves boxed into an impossible position if they go to the conference without a well-thought-out agreement or a well-thought-out position? They may find that there will be an extension of the limits of territorial waters. That seems possible at the moment. We are asking that the Government should consider actively the position and present it to the House and to the country so that we do not find ourselves in an impossible international position once the conference has started.

Mr. Amery

We shall go to the conference very carefully prepared. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just said, we ought to go with an open mind. It would be wrong to make up our minds in advance on exactly where we stand. This is always a mistake in advance of any international conference—as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would have been the first to agree had he been taking over the International Monetary Fund.

Mr. Paget

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, so far from having proved a source of international law, United Nations' resolutions have proved to be almost the exact opposite, and have in general been expressions of the contempt in which international law is held when racialist emotions are involved?

Mr. Amery

I bow to the hon. and learned Gentleman's legal experience, without wishing to endorse every word of what he has said.

Mr. McNamara

We accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said about a unilateral obligation in international law. Nevertheless, is there not something wrong in the attitude he is taking, namely, that as a Government we can go to an international conference with an open mind and no policy? It would surely be helpful, in relation to both the present dispute and the conference at Santiago, which is only a year away, if we had some indication of the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to the whole question of exclusive fishing rights and a general sharing of the world's resources below the oceans.

Mr. Amery

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the generosity to accept that I never said that we would go with an open mind and no policy. I said that we would go fully prepared, but with an open mind, in the sense that we would not determine our final policies until we had heard the arguments advanced by others at the conference. There is not much point in having conferences if people who attend them have closed minds.