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Seabed Arms Control Treaty

Like the Antarctic Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, and the Latin American Nuclear-Free Zone, the Seabed Treaty sought to prevent the introduction of international conflict and nuclear weapons into an area hitherto free of them. Reaching agreement on the seabed, however, involved problems not met in framing the other two agreements.

In the 1960s, advances in the technology of oceanography and greatly increased interest in the vast and virtually untapped resources of the ocean floor led to concern that the absence of clearly established rules of law might lead to strife. And there were concurrent fears that nations might use the seabed as a new environment for military installations, including those capable of launching nuclear weapons.

In keeping with a proposal submitted to the U.N. Secretary General by Ambassador Pardo of Malta in August 1967, the U.N. General Assembly, on December 18, 1967, established an ad hoc committee to study ways of reserving the seabed for peaceful purposes, with the objective of ensuring "that the exploration and use of the seabed and the ocean floor should be conducted in accordance with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, in the interests of maintaining international peace and security and for the benefit of all mankind." The Committee was given permanent status the following year. At the same time, seabed-related military and arms control issues were referred to the ENDC and its successor, the CCD.1 In a message of March 18, 1969, President Nixon said the American delegation to the ENDC should seek discussion of the factors necessary for an international agreement prohibiting the emplacement of weapons of mass destruction on the seabed and ocean floor and pointed out that an agreement of this kind would, like the Antarctic and Outer Space treaties, "prevent an arms race before it has a chance to start."

On March 18, 1969, the Soviet Union presented a draft Treaty that provided for the complete demilitarization of the seabed beyond a 12-mile limit and making all seabed installations open to Treaty parties on the basis of reciprocity. The U.S. draft Treaty, submitted on May 22, prohibited the emplacement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on the seabed and ocean floor beyond a three-mile band. This, the United States held, was the urgent problem, and complete demilitarization would not be verifiable.

As can be seen, the two drafts differed importantly on what was to be prohibited. The Soviet draft would have banned all military uses of the seabed. It would have precluded, for example, submarine surveillance systems that were fixed to the ocean floor. The United States regarded these as essential to its defense.

The two drafts also differed on the issue of verification. Using as a model the provisions for verification in the Outer Space Treaty, the Soviets proposed that all installations and structures be open to inspection, provided that reciprocal rights to inspect were granted. The United States contended that on the Moon no claims of national jurisdiction existed and that provisions suitable for the Moon would not be adequate for the seabed, where many claims of national jurisdiction already existed and many kinds of activities were in progress or possible. Moreover, the United States felt that to attempt to inspect for the emplacement of all kinds of weapons would make the problems connected with verification virtually insuperable.

On the other hand, the United States stated the case that any structures capable of handling nuclear devices would necessarily be large and elaborate; their installation would require extensive activity, difficult to conceal; and there would probably be a number of devices involved, as it would not be worth violating the Treaty simply to install one or two weapons. Violations, therefore, would be readily observed and evoke the appropriate steps -- first an effort to deal directly with the problem through consultations with the country violating the Treaty; if that failed, recourse to cooperative action; and, as a last resort, appeal to the Security Council.

Comments on the two drafts in the ENDC, U.S. consultations with its NATO allies, and private U.S.-Soviet talks at the ENDC eventually led to the framing of a joint draft by the United States and the Soviet Union, submitted on October 7, 1969, to the CCD. This joint draft underwent intensive discussion and was three times revised in response to suggestions made in the CCD and at the United Nations.

Discussion centered on a few difficult issues. In international law there was much confusion about how territorial waters were to be defined. Some countries claimed up to 200 miles, and international conventions on the subject contained ambiguities. In its final form the Treaty adopted a 12-mile limit to define the seabed area.

The verification provisions also were a subject of intensive discussion. Coastal states were concerned about whether their rights would be protected. Smaller states had doubts as to their ability to check on violations. Some felt that the United Nations should play a larger role. Some wondered whether the verification procedures would really be effective. Reassurances were given to the coastal states. Smaller states could apply for assistance to another state to help it in case of a suspected violation.

The verification procedures are set forth in Article III. Parties may undertake verification using their own means, with the assistance of other parties, or through appropriate international procedures within the framework of the United Nations and in accordance with its Charter. These provisions permit parties to assure themselves the Treaty obligations are being fulfilled without interfering with legitimate seabed activities.

After more than two years of negotiation, the final draft was approved by the U.N. General Assembly on December 7, 1970, by a vote of 104 to 2 (El Salvador, Peru), with two abstentions (Ecuador and France).

Article I sets forth the principal obligation of the Treaty. It prohibits parties from emplacing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction on the seabed and the ocean floor beyond a 12-mile coastal zone. Article II provides that the "seabed zone" is to be measured in accordance with the provisions of the 1958 Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. To make clear that none of the Treatys provisions should be interpreted as supporting or prejudicing the positions of any party regarding law-of-the-sea issues, a broad disclaimer provision to this effect was included as Article IV.

In recognition of the feeling that efforts to achieve a more comprehensive agreement should continue, Article V of the Treaty bound parties to work for further measures to prevent an arms race on the seabed.

The Seabed Arms Control Treaty was opened for signature in Washington, London, and Moscow on February 11, 1971. It entered into force May 18, 1972, when the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and more than 22 nations had deposited instruments of ratification.

Article VII included a provision for a review conference to be held in five years. The Seabed Arms Control Treaty Review Conference was held in Geneva June 20 - July 1, 1977. The Conference concluded that the first five years in the life of the Treaty had demonstrated its effectiveness. The Second Review Conference, held in Geneva in September 1983, concluded that the Treaty continued to be an important and effective arms control measure. The Third Review Conference was held in Geneva in September 1989 and confirmed results of previous meetings. It was agreed that the next review conference would be convened in Geneva not earlier than 1996.


1 The Geneva-based ENDC (Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee) became known as the CCD (Conference of the Committee on Disarmament) after its enlargement in 1969.

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