HC Deb 09 November 1977 vol 938 cc652-4
5. Mr. Lipton

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress he is making in the international discussions relating to the law of the sea.

Mr. Luard

The new informal negotiating text produced after the Sixth Session of the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference in July contains a number of improvements.

However, the part relating to the international sea-bed regime is unacceptable to the United Kingdom in its present form.

The British delegation is seeking further improvements before the next session.

Mr. Lipton

Can we not do a bit more to make the public realise the importance of the vital issues involved in these discussions? Does it not appear that some other countries which are also concerned are dragging their feet on this important issue? If we do not do more, these discussions will go on for ever.

Mr. Luard

I agree very much with the first part of what my hon. Friend said. It is rather surprising that the public and the Press in this and most other countries have not recognised that we are talking about the future disposition of a considerable part of the world's remaining natural resources. We are doing all that we can to urge on all the other Governments involved the necessity of agreement in this vital matter, but that is a large number of Governments. Deep divisions of national interest are at stake here, not of the most common kind between rich countries and poor countries, mainly, but between coastal States and non-coastal States, between the countries that have the technology to exploit their resources and those that do not, and it is not easy to resolve those differences. I think that it is remarkable that we have got as far as we have. We have now a single text. It is not altogether satisfactory in certain respects, but I hope and believe that we can get it into a satisfactory state by the end of the next session of the conference.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Is the Minister aware that the one agreement reached in the Law of the Sea Conference is the simple proposition that the best conservationists are the coastal States, they having most at stake? Is he aware also of the irony that the maritime nations of the world are taking 200 miles of the sea as their exclusive right for fishing and other purposes but, because of the EEC arrangements, the United Kingdom, with 65 per cent. of the fishing pond of the EEC—most of it in Scottish waters —will not even have control, far less exclusive control, over 50 miles?

Mr. Luard

It is not the case that the principle which the hon. Lady mentions is the only matter that has been agreed in the conference. There is a considerable range of matters, including some of great importance, on which an international consensus has now been arrived at in the conference, some much more important than the matter that the hon. Lady mentions. She has raised a question which has nothing to do with the conference—the question of the EEC's fishery régime. I can only suggest that she raises it in the proper form and at the proper time.

Mr. Roper

Will my hon. Friend say whether, during the discussions, Her Majesty's Government will be able to support the clause in the single informal negotiating text which deals with the underwater cultural heritage, as it is important that we arrive at a common basis for the protection of underwater archaeological remains?

Mr. Luard

My hon. Friend has mentioned one of the points on which there is a substantial degree of consensus in the conference. The preservation of the cultural heritage beneath the sea is one of the many detailed but none the less important points that the conference has been considering. There is a substantial likelihood that we shall be able to reach agreement on it.

Mr. Wall

Can the Minister make clear whether the 200-mile fishery limit is now de jure or de facto? In other words, is it now part of international law, or is it merly accepted by most countries?

Mr. Luard

All that this conference is doing is trying to establish a new law of the sea. If we finally reach agreement on a new convention it will be for individual Governments to ratify it, and when a sufficient number have ratified—that number has not yet been decided—it will become part of international law. We are, therefore, quite a long way from making it international law at present.

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