HC Deb 02 December 1982 vol 33 cc404-10 3.57 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The United Nations convention on the law of the sea will be opened for signature in Jamaica on 10 December, and will remain open for signature for two years thereafter. The convention deals with many aspects of the law of the sea. Some provisions are a re-statement or codification of existing international law; some provisions seek to make new law. Parts of the convention, for example, those relating to navigation, the Continental Shelf and Pollution, are helpful, but the provisions relating to deep seabed mining including the transfer of technology are not acceptable. They are based on undesirable regulatory principles and could constitute unsatisfactory precedents. A number of our friends and allies share our misgivings on those points. We need to obtain satisfactory improvements in the deep sea mining regime and will therefore explore the prospects with interested States. As the convention is open for signature for two years, there is ample time for revision before taking a final decision. It is our wish that there should be generally agreed provisions for regulating marine matters and we wish to continue to work with the international community to achieve that.

I should emphasise to the House that we could not participate in a seabed regime on the present terms, and for that reason we could not ratify the convention unless the provisions for the deep sea mining regime become satisfactory.

A copy of the convention and relevant resolutions of the conference have been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

The Under-Secretary's statement is utterly unacceptable to the Opposition. It is one more example of the Government behaving as President Reagan's poodle. The Under-Secretary must be aware that this matter has been under negotiation for over 20 years. The convention was supported by 130 countries when it was presented earlier this year, including the overwhelming majority of European and Commonwealth countries. Only the United States of America and three other countries—for different reasons—opposed it. The Government's decision not to ratify the treaty will be regarded as contrary to international and British interests.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that, as a maritime seafaring country, Great Britain has an immense interest in finally deciding the law of the sea on all matters to do with the sailing of vessels, as the convention does, and that there is no chance of any commercial undertaking attempting to explore mineral rights on the seabed unless the legal position is clear?

If the convention is frustrated by the Government's actions, there will be little chance of action in that area, in which the Government are presumably interested, being pursued. Through what machinery does he hope to persuade the 130 countries which have already agreed the convention to change the position that they have taken on the mineral regime? In any case, does not the convention come into force once 60 countries have ratified it" I hope that he will not tell us that the Government will defy a convention once it has come into force.

Mr. Rifkind

The Government's objective throughout the discussions has been to achieve a convention acceptable to the world community as a whole. Not only the United States has expressed opposition to the convention; a number of other countries have grave anxieties, particularly about the mining provisions. For example, the West German Government have not so far expressed an intention to sign the convention; it is possible that they will not do so. The same applies to the Italian and a number of other Governments.

The right hon. Gentleman is incorrect to imply that 130 countries will ratify the convention. So far only the German Democratic Republic has expressed an intention both to sign and to ratify the convention. A number of countries that have expressed an intention to sign have given no assurance about ratification.

It is important that, if at all possible, the maritime provisions should be acceptable to the world community. Those parts of the convention that relate to the free passage of vessels, the Continental Shelf and pollution are acceptable to the Government. As the convention expressly allows two years for countries to decide whether to sign, if it is still the wish of the world community as a whole to have a convention acceptable to all, we hope that further thought will be given to the parts which not only are unacceptable to ourselves and the United States but which have been criticised by a significant number of other countries.

Mr. Healey

With respect, the Under-Secretary is far too intelligent to be unaware of the fact that he has not answered any of my questions.

Does the convention not enter into force if 60 countries ratify it? Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government did not oppose the convention when it was discussed earlier this year and that we were one of a small number of countries that abstained? Is not the change in the Government's position, like that of the West German Government, due to excessive and intolerable pressure exerted by the United States Administration? Will not the hon. Gentleman stand up for Britain for a change? The matter is of immense importance to us as a seafaring nation.

Mr. Rifkind

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is incorrect. The United Kingdom was one of a substantial number of countries that abstained when the convention was concluded. A small number of countries opposed and voted against the convention; a significantly greater number, including a substantial number of West European and Soviet bloc countries, abstained.

The convention will come into effect if it is ratified by 60 countries. The United Kingdom will honour all conventions that it has ratified; that is what ratification is all about. If we have not ratified a convention, we shall be in the same position as any other country that does not ratify a convention: we shall not be bound by it.

Mr. Healey

The hon. Gentleman has made a serious statement. He is suggesting that a treaty which for the first time in human history regulates the law of the sea will come into force if ratified by 60 countries but that the Government reserve the right to defy its provisions. How will it help British mineral companies which want to explore the seabed to defy a convention that has entered into force as a result of ratification by the proper number of counties?

Mr. Rifkind

I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the fact that for a country to be bound by an international treaty it has to take the decision to sign and subsequently to ratify it. If it declines to ratify a treaty, it is stating that it does not intend to be bound by it. It is a normal and acceptable part of international law that countries that do not ratify treaties are not bound by them.

Mr. Healey

The hon. Gentleman still has not answered the question. Does he believe that any mineral company will be prepared to invest the hundreds of millions of pounds required to suck up nodules from the seabed if the Government defy an international convention determining the legal regime under which the activities take place? Has he met any international company that would be prepared to take that risk?

Mr. Rifkind

A country is not defying an international convention if it declines to ratify it; it is simply exercising its sovereign rights as a State.

One of our main anxieties about the present terminology of the convention is that the deep sea mining proposals would deter many international companies from contemplating the expensive investment required.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

Is the convention amendable, and, if so, how? Having been ratified, does the convention have to reconvene for amendments to be made? Will the hon. Gentleman tell us now or place in the Library the Government's objections to the convention as it stands?

Mr. Rifkind

The convention is open for signature but is unlikely to be ratified by the minimum requirement of 60 States for some time. Previous conventions have sometimes taken a number of years to be ratified. At the very least there will be a substantial gap before possible ratification. If there is sufficient will, there is the opportunity for changes to be made.

The Government's objections primarily concern the deep sea mining regime but also the compulsory requirements for transfer of technology and the limitations on production in deep sea mining which would be a substantial disincentive to mining. Those are the main areas of anxiety, although there are a number of other detailed points.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is not the official Opposition's position that vital British interests should be subordinated to the views of a majority of powers whose interests may conflict with ours?

Mr. Rifkind

Anxiety is caused not only by the fact that the proposed regime could have that effect; there is also a provision that the terms of the convention and the regime can be reviewed after 15 years. If there was not unanimity after five years of further discussion, a majority could take a decision, for example, to exclude all commercial private exploitation of the deep seabed, which would certainly be contrary to our interests.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

In order not to lose the benefit of the parts of the convention with which we agree and are prepared to accept, should we not consider at least signing or even ratifying the convention with reservations?

Mr. Rifkind

Under certain international conventions that is a possibility. Unfortunately, it is not an option under this one. Party States have the option of signing the whole convention or declining to sign; they do not have the opportunity to accept only parts.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

May I say without bravado, as one who put parliamentary questions to Harold Macmillan 20 years ago on the subject and who has followed it ever since, that I am appalled at the Minister's attitude? Does he recollect the work of the late Lord Ritchie-Calder and the point that he often used to make about the extraction of manganese nodules from the seabed and the importance of getting the agreement of the riparian States in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific or elsewhere?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not dispute that, but I repeat that there is real reason to doubt whether the regime proposed would encourage companies which have the technology to invest the vast sums that would be required to extract the nodules from the deep seabed. It is in everyone's interest to have a regime acceptable to the world community as a whole and one that will encourage the private sector, which has the technology, to invest the vast sums required if the resources are to be utilised.

Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have looked into the matter? Does he recall that the Council has an excellent report prepared by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) and that there is an opinion by the European Economic Affairs and Development Committee, which I entered with the desire to support the United Nations convention but members of the committee found that the industrial and bureaucratic provisions were intolerable? What representations has my hon. Friend had from international mining companies and others to the effect that the agreement would be intolerable?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the study to the attention of the House. I believe that the mining companies' anxiety is that the system adopted by the world community should be an incentive and not a disincentive to deep sea mining. The production controls, the transfer of technology requirements and other similar factors constitute a substantial disincentive.

We hope that there will still be opportunity, especially over the next two years, for further thought to be given to changes that will enable the world community to unite and endorse a regime that will encourage deep sea mining. If such changes can be contemplated, that is something that we shall welcome.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the Minister concede that the objections are being promoted by a small group of companies, which are based mainly in the United States, which have the technology to exploit the resources lying on the deep sea bed? Is he asking the House and the British people to believe that these companies would go ahead, under the supervision of licences granted by the United States, in opposition to nearly all the countries in the world? Is he asking the House to believe that that is the main stumbling block? Is he suggesting that the United Kingdom has no interest in these affairs other than in consortia with United States' companies?

Will he accept that we are being dragged into international disrepute at the behest of Reagan economics in the international sphere? Will he concede that this attitude of mind undermines many areas of international co-operation which are essential if we are to get out of the slump?

Mr. Rifkind

American and British companies must speak for themselves. I am not aware of any public statements that they have made in the United States, in Europe or elsewhere in which they have called for the proposals of the law of the sea convention to be accepted by nation States. If they have great enthusiasm for the proposals, they have not given that indication.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that there is no urgency in this matter because deep sea mining is unlikely to take place before 2000 AD? Is he aware of the danger of recognising an international seabed authority, which would lead to the conclusion that there would have to be an international Antarctic authority and an international space authority, too?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is right to say that in any circumstances the prospects for mining on the deep sea bed are a good number of years ahead. It is a distant prospect rather than an immediate one irrespective of the attitudes that countries take to the convention. He is right also to say that our policy towards this convention could be used as a precedent in other discussions that might take place on other matters in future.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Is not the Minister aware of the high priority given by successive Governments to the law of the sea conference? It was one example where order could be brought where anarchy could reign. Does he accept that the low level or even casual way in which the Government have brought this announcement to the House could suggest that they are beginning to enter a conspiracy to wreck the whole process on behalf of narrow vested interests?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in making that suggestion. The Government do not desire to wreck international co-operation. We have said that there are large parts of the convention which we find acceptable, which are attractive and which are of interest to the international community. However, the deepsea mining provisions are not an incidental part of the convention. They form a major part of the convention, and one that has been most controversial in recent years. The British Government have never made any secret of their concern about and disagreement with these proposals. We did not endorse the convention when it was approved some months ago. We still hope to see sufficient changes made over the next two years by the international community, before a final decision on signature is required, to enable us to endorse it. We shall be delighted to do(so, but only if the terms of the convention are consistent with British interests.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed by all countries which have expertise in deep sea mining which are prepared to invest in it and to become involved in it? Of the many changes in the convention which I hope he will pursue, will he ensure that the membership of the executive council of the proposed authority will include countries that are involved in deep sea mining and will not be confined to countries which are land-locked and which do not even know how to deep sea mine?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to say that many of the countries that have indicated that they are likely to sign the convention are not involved in deep sea mining, and would be only beneficiaries to the convention and would not have only obligations under it. He is correct also to say that it is desirable that those involved in the international seabed authority, if it is set up, should be the countries most involved. The United Kingdom will be able to be involved in the debates at the preparatory commission. However, it will not have a vote at that commission unless it has signed the convention.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places to ask questions and then to call the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), before ending questions on the statement.

Mr. Joan Evans (Aberdare)

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems that has faced mankind over the years has been conflicts about ownership of the earth's surface? The purpose of the law of the sea conference is to ensure that there are not the same conflicts in the development of the oceans' beds. If the Government are going along with the United States of America—the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned any other country that has seriously said that it is against the law of the sea proposals—will they introduce positive proposals with a view to seeking some international agreement? Is he aware that if there is a failure to do so there will be a danger of a serious conflict because of an inability to determine what areas should be developed by what countries?

Mr. Rifkind

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the British Government are not against international co-operation on the exploitation of the deep seabed. That is a desirable principle. We take exception to particular proposals within the convention, which if imposed through the international seabed authority and the various other structural innovations that are proposed could result in an unwieldy, bureaucratic and possibly unworkable system which would deter rather than encourage the investment and co-operation that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the only effective international law is that which is achieved through unanimity, which, of course, involves acceptance by other major countries as well as our own? His caution in safeguarding British interests will be welcomed widely—we must proceed carefully in these matters—but will he accept that many will be looking for the Government and the United Kingdom to take a major part in ensuring that a fundamental step in international law is not lost for ever?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend has raised a valuable point. It is a harsh fact of life that any convention bearing on deep sea mining that did not have the United States as a party would be of relatively little value in achieving international agreement. That is because of the overwhelming and predominant contribution that the United States makes to technology and possible developments in this area of activity. I agree with the objectives that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

It is correct in law that there cannot be a breach of a convention unless there is prior ratification by the United Kingdom Government, but does the Minister agree that his nonchalant attitude to this issue will create the impression, however unwittingly, that Her Majesty's Government are adopting an insular attitude and shirking their responsibility to the Third world by appearing to obstruct a comprehensive international agreement to distribute the wealth of the world among those who most need it?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for educating Members on the Opposition Front Bench. The United Kingdom cannot be bound by a convention that it has not ratified. It is not the desire of Her Majesty's Government to obstruct co-operation with the Third world. Much of the convention is acceptable. However, there is one major aspect of it which is unacceptable. It will come as no surprise to any Third world country that the United Kingdom disagrees with the parts of the convention to which I have referred. I hope that there will still be an opportunity for international discussion and co-operation that will lead to changes that will be acceptable to the United Kingdom and the world community.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I accept that the convention as drafted is clearly flawed and in need of revision. However, does my hon. Friend agree that some form of treaty is necessary in future to give the world community, especially Third world developing countries, some hope that they can develop their own economic system and improve their performance? Will the Government work to achieve a more satisfactory solution that delivers goods and is acceptable to all?

Mr. Rifkind

I can certainly give that assurance. It is undoubtedly in the interests of the world community that there should be an international convention that is acceptable to it as a whole. So far that has not proved possible with this convention but we shall do our best to see whether it can be made possible during the next two years.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is not the problem that the Prime Minister, who is so renownedly ignorant about foreign affairs and so pitifully tied to Reagan's coat tails, has personally intervened yet once again?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's question is so absurd that it does not require a reply.

Mr. Healey

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the exchanges in the past half hour demonstrate that it is the view of a large number of hon. Members that the Government's attitude is just one more example of their indifference to international order, their hostility to the interests of the Third world and their subservience to the temporary commercial interests of American companies? The House will wish to debate the matter, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can assure us that the Government will give us an opportunity to do so.

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that his latter point is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. No doubt my right hon. Friend has heard every word of the right hon. Gentleman's contribution.

The exchanges that we have had do not suggest that the House overwhelmingly takes a different view from the Government. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Opposition take a different view; but that is not unusual.