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US and sea law treaty: oceans apart

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The final act of the Law of the Sea conference will be played in Jamaica on Dec. 10 when many - but not all - of the world's nations sign a treaty to regulate the uses and resources of the oceans.

This international compact, which took almost nine years to negotiate with the participation of 155 nations, affects almost all aspects of maritime life - commercial, economic, legal, and military. It gives ships the right to pass through important straits and waterways. It allows each country an economic zone of 200 miles and a territorial zone of 12 miles. It settles questions regarding fishing rights and continental shelves. It spells out rules for seabed mining and establishes an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to govern the harvesting of ocean minerals.

''The treaty is a hallmark,'' says former Canadian Secretary of State Mark MacGuigan. ''It is the most important legal document since the adoption of the UN Charter.''

More than 60 states are expected to sign the treaty, which was adopted last April in New York by a 130-to-4 vote, with 17 abstentions. The signing ceremony means a point of no return for the treaty. It will from then on become the international law of the seas. Altogether 145 countries are expected to sign it, some within a few months, others within a year or two. The United States, Turkey , Venezuela, and Israel alone still reject the treaty; and a handful of others, mainly Latin American, remain hesitant.

The Scandinavian nations and most of the communist countries that abstained last April have let it be known they will sign it. So will France, Japan, Canada , Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Norway, and Ireland. West Germany and Britain will not sign at this time, mainly to save the US the embarrassment of being isolated. Both countries are expected, however, to eventually sign the treaty.

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