Deal on seabed mining ‘almost complete’

DEVELOPING countries and industrial powers are on the verge of clinching a deal which could end more than two decades of differences between the two sides on sharing the ocean’s mineral resources.

A US State Department official involved in the negotiations told The Straits Times in a telephone interview from Washington yesterday:

“The atmosphere is very good and I am reasonably confident that we can solve the remaining few issues that are still under discussion and possibly have an agreement before the Convention comes into force.

“There appears to be a great deal of support across the political spectrum for an agreement.”

He said that diplomats were in the final stages of hammering out a compromise between the developing world and industrial countries on a draft agreement to implement the seabed mining section of the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

The text of the agreement, which had gone through three revisions since it was drawn up last August, would elaborate and change existing provisions under the section, he said.

“It will supplement the existing terms in the Convention,” he said, adding that, if accepted, the agreement would be adopted by a UN General Assembly resolution.

Drawn up 12 years ago to regulate every aspect of three-fifths of the earth’s surface, the Law of the Sea Convention comes into force this November.

The treaty has been signed by 159 countries and ratified by mostly developing countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Industrial countries such as the United States, Britain and West Germany have refused to sign or ratify the Convention.

The major issue that has prevented a consensus is guidelines for mining rich metal reserves lying on the seabeds of the Pacific Ocean.

The industrial countries were against compulsory sharing of their nations’ technology with the developing world and the regulation of seabed mineral wealth by an International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The ISA, through its operating arm, The Enterprise, would receive royalties from commercial mining operators, and mine the seabed itself, passing some of the revenues to developing countries.

The official said that the draft agreement, which was hatched at the informal consultations chaired by the UN Secretary-General, Dr Boutros Ghali, reached a consensus in the areas of decision-making in the ISA’s 36-member executive council, technology transfer and The Enterprise’s role in seabed mining activities.

While optimistic that an arrangement could be worked out between the two sides, he said there was still some “controversy” over the decision-making in the ISA’s executive council.

“It is a very delicate issue and is subject to negotiations,” he said. He declined to elaborate.

Diplomatic sources told The Straits Times that the US was unhappy with being left out of the council which comprises mainly developing countries.

But the US official was optimistic that developing countries and the industrial powers would clear this hurdle before the treaty’s implementation: “I do not see it as differences that are going to result in some kind of deadlock. It is very clear that people are in the mood to find a solution and we will find a compromise in that area that will satisfy everyone.”

CONSENSUS REACHED

* Decision-making. Land-based producers of seabed minerals, investors in seabed mining activity, and the minerals’ consumers would be able to overturn decisions taken by the International Seabed Authority’s 36-member executive council.

* Technology transfer. Commercial mining operators would not be required to transfer their technology to developing countries or The Enterprise, the operating arm of the ISA. Technology will be made available through joint venture arrangements.

* The Enterprise. It will be placed on equal footing with commercial mining operators. It would not be given preferential rights that would give it competitive advantage.

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