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America's Seabed Legacy

Three Presidents and a Treaty
November 16, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of a new international organization, the International Seabed Authority. Even though the US is not a party to the Law of the Sea Convention that established the Authority, Americans should take pride in the role the United States had in the creation of this international organization charged with the management of the mineral resources of the sea beyond national jurisdiction.
Three American presidents provided essential leadership on the design and operation of the Authority: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Even before there was a concept for a new international organization for deep seabed minerals, President Johnson set the guiding principle for such an organization in 1966 when he spoke at the commissioning of the Coast and Geodetic Survey's ocean survey ship Oceanographer. Addressing the global interest in the minerals that, at that time, were only speculative in value, Johnson said:

"Under no circumstances must we ever allow the prospect of rich harvest and mineral wealth to create a new form of colonial competition among the maritime nations. We must be careful to avoid a race to grab and to hold the lands under the high seas. We must ensure that the deep seas and the ocean bottoms are, and remain, the legacy of all human beings."

Johnson’s declaration of the seabed as the “legacy of all human beings” was made forty eight years ago and a year before Amb. Arvid Pardo of Malta made his speech in the UN General Assembly calling the seabed resources the “common heritage of mankind.” The concept that the seabed was a legacy for all of humanity, not just the first people to develop it, is the underlying principle of today’s seabed regime.

Bringing Johnson's concept into reality fell to President Nixon. Armed with the recommendations of the Stratton Commission and its report, “Our Nation and the Sea,” Nixon submitted his Draft Convention on the International Seabed Area to provide the administrative structure of a new international organization that would oversee development of seabed minerals and ensure that developing nations received a share of humanity’s seafloor legacy. Nixon’s framework, including an Assembly of all parties, an executive council responsible for operational decisions, and expert commissions to ensure that decisions were based on fact rather than ideology or special interests, is found today in the International Seabed Authority.
Hard-fought negotiations throughout the 1970s resulted in terms of the Law of the Sea  Convention that diverged from Nixon’s original intent. At that point, President Reagan held firm, demanding changes that would return the Convention to the principles and structure espoused by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Reagan went on to endorse a convention that would meet his criteria:

"The United States remains committed to the multilateral treaty process for reaching agreement on law of the sea. If working together at the conference we can find ways to fulfill these key objectives, my administration will support ratification.”

It would be another dozen years before negotiators concluded the “Agreement on Implementation of Part XI” that bore the fruit of Reagan’s fortitude in the International Seabed Authority as it was established in 1994.
Over the twenty years of the Authority's existence, Johnson’s principles, Nixon’s structural design and Reagan’s steadfastness have brought to life the vision they shared of a new regime that would encourage seabed development while protecting the ocean and sharing humanity’s seabed legacy. But the United States has yet to grasp the victory at hand. The work of presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan will not be complete until the United States joins the Convention, takes its permanent seat in the Authority’s Council, and sponsors American firms to share in the benefits of seabed mineral development. Until that day, the United States will cede the seabed resources to the rest of the world.
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