Once and for all the world's countries may decide how to collectively manage two-thirds of the earth's surface -- the sea. This Swiss city will play host July 28 to a final five-week negotiating session on the Law of the Sea. Some 2,500 delegates from 163 countries will put the finishing touches on a draft convention that has been in the works for six years, and that will put into words the grandest attempt to date to divide up the planet's ocean peacefully.
Elliot L. Richardson, the chief US representative, says it appears "distinctly possible" that work will be completed at the meeting here. But other officials, including the conference president, H. Shirley Amerasinghe of Sri Lanka, think that the whole thing could collapse if the countries fail to iron out their differences on the most quarrelsome issue: how to vote to block decisions by the proposed Council of the International Seabed Authority, which would oversee the mining of the mineral-rich seabed by private companies.
The companies, including Lockheed's Ocean Minerals Company and US Steel's Ocean Mining Associates, have pressured the conference delegates to limit in any final and binding treaty, the power of the 36-nation council. The purpose of the council -- at least as currently conceived -- would be to regulate the production and marketing of riches from the sea, notably minerals like cobalt and nickel.
For their part, developing countries have insisted on making technology transfer an integral part of any agreement -- and on sharing in profits.
Defining a satisfactory mechanism for settling such disputes -- and others that have only now begun to surface -- has been the toughest problem to work out as the opening of the July session in Geneva draws near. What is certain is that the developing countries will not agree to any convention that allows the US and its allies UN-Security-Council-like veto power. They want negotiation by consensus.
At stake in the meeting here, besides the rights and obligations of all ships plying the world's seas (and other similarly important matters) is ownership of nodules of nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese lying on seabeds 10- 15,000 feet beneath the surface. Also central to the talks will be deciding how to divide up rights among nations to the continental shelf.
Agreement has been reached in the past six years of marathon negotiations on about 90 percent of the original list of outstanding problems, including navigation, pollution, scientific research, and fishing. These issues have been put into a draft treaty containing nearly 500 articles and seven annexes.
Whether the Roman dictum that the sea is mankind's common property will be made real at this Third Conference on the Law of the Sea is still open to dispute. Two earlier UN conferences -- in 1958 and 1960 -- ended in conventions that were later discarded.
Fourteen years have passed since President Lyndon Johnson started the wheels turning again with the assertion that the US must ensure that "deep seas and ocean bottoms are and remain, the legacy of all human beings."
Some cynics suggest that with competition for raw materials heating up worldwide, there may not be another 14 years left in which to work out an amiable solution to managing the world's seas. Without a law of the sea, they say, the law of the jungle could prevail.