Environment

Once Britannia ruled the waves, but now it’s not so simple

SUSAN LUMSDEN April 5 1976
Environment

Once Britannia ruled the waves, but now it’s not so simple

SUSAN LUMSDEN April 5 1976

Once Britannia ruled the waves, but now it’s not so simple

Environment

The current round of United Nations Third Law of the Sea Conference, which opened in New York last month, must be the most horrendous labyrinth of law, economics and pure power politics ever confronted by man or journalist. At its simplest, it is the largest multilateral conference in history: 148 nations trying to reorganize the management of the planet’s last frontier. The world has coasted on the principle of “freedom of the seas” since the early 17th century; the problem today is that one country’s freedom is frequently another’s pollution—or fish. Maritime laws have become so contradictory that one, all-embracing new international law must be written. For the first time, Canada really has something to lose—fish, minerals and sovereignty along the longest coastline in the world. To protect those interests, it has enunciated a “custodianship” philosophy of the seas: that no one is more capable of protecting marine environment than coastal states, separated by national economic zones stretching 200 miles into the sea.

The facts required to sell this position are handled by John Alan Beesley, 48, Canada’s ambassador to Austria and deputy leader of the conference delegation. (External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen is the nominal head.)The boyishly handsome, informal Beesley (he’s been known to appear on Vienna’s ¿legantKartnerstrasse in cutoff blue jeans) is also chairman of the conference’s drafting committee, charged with actually writing the new laws. The son of a BC civil servant, Beesley grew up in the interior of BC and practised law in Victoria for five years before moving to Ottawa. “I never really wanted to be anything but a diplomat,” he says. After three-year postings in Tel Aviv and Geneva, he returned to Ottawa and in 1971 became legal adviser to the Department of External Affairs, just when Canada’s Arctic attitudes were changing. A year earlier, parliament had passed the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, extending its territorial sea from the traditional three miles (the distance of an old cannon shot) to 12 miles, and pollution jurisdiction 100 miles in the Arctic. The timing was not accidental. The 1968 discovery of oil and gas at Prudhoe Bay confirmed what the world already suspected: that Canada’s position was based as much on future resource wealth as on respect for Arctic ecology. Says Beesley: “I had to open a special filing cabinet for protest notes.”

The notes came mainly from traditional Maritime powers—the United States, Great Britain and France—which had the power and wealth to profit from “freedom of the seas.” Russia supported Canada’s legislation (it was similar to their own undisputed claim to the North East Passage), but elsewhere stood firm with the United States in advocating unconditional rights of passage through international straits. Canada’s point is that the North West Passage has never been an internationally trafficked waterway.

Shortly after the act was passed, Beesley, Jean Chretien, then Minister of Northern Development, and others were invited to spend an informal weekend at Oxford, England, with top-level Britons and Americans, chatting about the Arctic. In that hypnotic atmosphere of sherry, roses and old books, the foreigners hoped to melt Canada’s rigidity. The Canadians were having none of it. Apparently, the silences were howling, but thereafter Canada’s Arctic position was taken a lot more seriously.

One justifier of this new territorial imperative is the environment. Unless something drastic is done soon, predicts Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, the oceans will be dead in 50 years. If the oceans die, so does man. The link is phytoplankton, tiny organisms that generate half the planet’s oxygen. When the sun can’t cut through the oil slicks to them, they die. And so goes the food chain.

In New York, Canada is claiming the resources of the continental shelf (it extends 650 miles in some places) and protectorship of the endangered Atlantic salmon. “But,” says Beesley, “we always accepted that countries that traditionally fished in those waters should be entitled to the surr plus catch.” The diplomatic tightrope act is reconciling the demands of the poor and landlocked countries, who think this is too much, with Canadian fishermen who think it’s not enough. Although percentages are still undetermined, the government has agreed to share with poorer nations revenue from resources found between the end of the 200-mile economic zone and the edge of the continental margin—regulated by a UN Seabed Authority. The poorer countries are lobbying for a stronger authority to further rights they can’t support with power. The powerful want the freedom to keep what they have. “Unless we see radical developments in the UN,” says Beesley, “it simply isn’t practicable that all the complexities of the living resources also be managed by an international authority. We may come to that, but in the meantime something has to be done to stop overexploitation and it’s our view that coastal states have the greatest interest in rational management.”

Speculation on the freedom of the seas is limitless. Will 148 nations be able to crystallize the present negotiating text by the end of the upcoming session (May 7)? Will a new law-of-the-sea make any difference? Says Dr. Arvid Pardo, the former Maltese ambassador to the UN, “any agreement will be so watered down it will be virtually indistinguishable from nonagreement.” But, counters Beesley, “in any system of law, any right carries with it an obligation. The difficulty about the law of the sea to us was that rights were affirmed, but no obligations, no duties. This made it a sort of free-for-all for major powers. We think those days are over.”

SUSAN LUMSDEN