HL Deb 19 July 1968 vol 295 cc581-4

11.5 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Questions was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what initiative they are taking at the United Nations to safeguard the extra-national wealth of the sea bottom for the benefit of all nations.]


My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the initiative in this important issue was taken at the last Assembly of the United Nations by the delegation of Malta. That led to the unanimous vote of 99 to nil in the General Assembly. The United Kingdom delegation at the United Nations supported the initiative of Malta and co-sponsored the resolution; and the United Kingdom is represented on the ad hoc Committee set up under that resolution, and on its Legal Working Group and Economic and Technical Working Group.

Her Majesty's Government are now engaged on a thorough study of all the complicated issues involved. This study is well under way, the aim being to give our delegation to the conference which is to take place in Rio de Janeiro next month full and positive instructions so that we may continue to play our full part in this important enterprise.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his reply and for his assurance that we are now doing something about this matter, may I ask him to look again at my Question and to notice two words especially? The first is "initiative". Is my noble friend aware that I followed his Answer, as well as the transcripts of the speeches in the United Nations and its committees, and that while I cannot fault the sentiments I do not think that we have so far taken the kind of initiative one would expect from Britain as a great maritime nation, whose research ship "The Challenger" first brought up the metallic nodules a century ago? Then may I ask him to look at the word "extranational"? It does not mean international, and it does not mean sub-supranational. It means "beyond nations," and refers to the 60 per cent. of the earth's surface which is beyond the off-shore limits. Am I out of order?


My Lords, my noble friend, I know, has been very cooperative and turned his Unstarred Question into a Starred Question. I think the House is in a tolerant mood.


My Lords, I am asking for tolerance. What I am talking about here, "extranational", applies to the extension of something which does not—




Is my noble friend aware that this tern does not apply to the continental shell or the off-shore limits or the continental rise; and is he aware that by no stretch of the law or of the imagination can there be an extension seawards of national boundaries? This is the question about which I feel we ought to have more reassurance at this time.


My Lords, certainly the comments of the noble Lord will be carefully borne in mind and I hope that we shall be able to enlist his continuing assistance in the enterprise on which we are engaged, which is of great consequence for the international community. I am most grateful to him for drawing attention to this important international issue, and I warmly welcome the assistance and interest which he has shown already. Indeed, I wish we had had an opportunity for a fuller discussion of this subject, which is of great interest to us in the United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations. But, as I have said, a thorough study is being undertaken of all the very complicated issues involved, and that study is well under way. Until that study is complete it would be difficult for me to say more, but I should like to say on behalf of the United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations that we have from the start shown keen interest and indeed have taken a leading part in dealing with this issue, and we shall most certainly continue to do so.


My Lords, while in no way minimising the importance of safeguarding the wealth of the seabed for all nations, would not the noble Lord agree that perhaps one of the best contributions which this country can make to international oceanography is by having a strong national scientific base? In that connection, I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell me when he expects the next Report of the Natural Environmental Research Council to come out? The Report I have here is only up to March, 1966. I also wonder whether the noble Lord would not agree that when this Report, which seems rather overdue, comes out, we should have a debate on it.


My Lords, I am very glad to be able to answer that the Report is expected within a month or two. I should also like to answer the principal question put, and to express my satisfaction that there is this keen interest in this subject in this House. I would certainly agree entirely with the noble Earl that this country, with its great maritime traditions, should take a prominent, leading initiative in this most important enterprise.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the study to which he has made reference refers to the report to be presented by the Secretary-General to the Economic and Social Conference, which was, as I understand, a survey of the known resources on the sea bed outside the continental shelf? And, if that be so, could I ask him whether, in view of the immense potentialities of the known resources on the sea bed, any discussions are to take place on the lines of the Antarctica Convention, so as to prevent an eventual international free-for-all?


My Lords, the noble Lord raises important issues which are to be discussed next month at the full meeting of the Conference which is called in Rio de Janeiro. It is with that Conference in mind that the full review is being undertaken by Her Majesty's Government. I would agree that it is of the utmost necessity that we should study every aspect of this matter and be prepared to take our full part when the time comes.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether in the studies which are being made he will bear in mind that the advice which may be given, that this is not a matter of urgency, is, in fact, misleading advice? Taking lessons from the crash programmes of the last twenty years, one sees that technological development of the seabed is much nearer than some people think.


My Lords, I anticipate that we shall receive sound advice and that we shall act on that advice in accordance with our own judgment.


My Lords, could the treaties in regard to outer space help in the resolution of this matter? Will they be taken into account?


My Lords, there are many precedents and previous decisions of the international community which should be taken into account. The principles laid down in respect of outer space led to the Treaty on Outer Space. It may be that we should follow the same practice in setting out principles in the first place and then proceeding to formal agreements. But it must take a considerable period of time. The issues involved are extremely complicated and difficult, and arouse intense interest on all those aspects, including the aspect of defence, which are to be discussed. The Antarctic Agreement, also has important lessons for us. We must take all these precedents into account.


My Lords, listening to these questions, I wonder whether perhaps we ought not to invent a new type of Question—a Semi-Starred Question.

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