HC Deb 19 June 1974 vol 875 cc154-6W
Mr. Ron Lewis

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will now make a statement on British policy at the Law of the Sea Conference in Caracas.

Mr. Ennals

The Government view this conference, which will take place from 20th June to 29th August, as a major landmark in the development of the law of the sea. If agreement can be reached it will pave the way for harmonious and peaceful use of the oceans by the world community for decades ahead.

Our main aim at the conference will be to seek a new convention which will be generally acceptable to all States. Negotiation and compromise will be essential and we shall play a full part in seeking the maximum common ground.

On fisheries, we have always believed that our interests were best served by narrow limits to national jurisdiction, but with international regulations established by regional fisheries commissions. This attitude has served the interests of our fishing industry as a whole. These considerations remain valid. At the same time, however, we recognise the special position of coastal States arising from the link between the fishing industry and the rest of their economies. We recognise also that there is a growing international demand for an economic zone of 200 miles and that our own fishing industry is increasingly tending to that view. We shall assess the strength of feeling on this issue at Caracas. What we are firmly opposed to is individual States extending their fisheries jurisdiction unilaterally. In this, as in other aspects of the law of the sea, it is essential to proceed by international agreement.

Whatever measures may be finally agreed for the control of fisheries, we shall certainly seek to ensure that the freedoms of navigation and overflight are preserved and that existing law on rights to the resources of the Continental Shelf is maintained. These resources include offshore oil which is of vital importance to our economy. We shall seek at the conference to clarify further the limits to a coastal State's rights to explore and exploit these resources. In our view, a coastal State may already claim under present international law sovereign rights over the resources up to the submerged edge of the continental rocks, that is, of the continental margin. We shall seek to ensure that that position is clearly maintained in the new convention.

As for the territorial sea, we are prepared to support a maximum breadth of 12 miles, subject to agreement on a satisfactory régime for the transit of straits used for international navigation. Extention of the territorial sea to 12 miles throughout the world would mean that in over 100 straits used for international navigation a present high seas route would cease to exist. This could create serious difficulties for our military and civil ships and aircraft. Defence, as well as commercial, interests are at stake. Accordingly we will work for a new régime which will preserve the freedoms of navigation and overflight and protect vessels in transit from arbitrary interference by coastal States.

We attach importance to the work of the conference on marine pollution from all sources; land-based discharges dumping, exploration and exploitation of the sea bed, and discharges from vessels. In our view, the new convention should not spell out detailed regulations, but should establish a framework for other more specialist conventions by setting out general rights and obligations of States. Provisions regarding pollution from vessels must enable the environment to be protected without prejudicing the free movement of ships. In our view this is best done through the stricter enforcement by flag States of the provisions of international conventions, and we shall propose ways of strengthening the link between a flag State and vessels flying its flag.

The Government support the principles in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2749 (XXV) that the resources of the sea bed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction should be the common heritage of mankind and be developed for the benefit of the whole world community, especially the developing countries. We shall aim at an international régime which encourages the orderly development of the resources of the international area in accordance with this objective.

On 15th May I chaired a seminar to enable a broad range of interested organisations and individuals to give their views on British policy at the conference. Copies of the report of the seminar have been placed in the Library of the House. I am considering holding a further seminar after the conference in Caracas.