L/SPF Files, Lot 68 D 47, Box 1594

Paper Prepared in the Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs



To determine the reply to the British request for informal talks on the present status of the 3-mile limit in international law relating to territorial waters.


Some time ago Mr. Tebbit and Mr. Fawcett of the British Embassy informed Mr. Chapman, U/FW, of the British Government’s concern at present tendencies throughout the world to break down the 3-mile limit applying to territorial waters and requested informal conversations between their international law experts and ours on this subject. They emphasized that such talks would be entirely unofficial and technical in character and that there would be no suggestion of agreements [Page 1690] being reached by the two Governments, or any commitments given, during the conversations.

During subsequent discussion in the Department it became evident that further clarification was needed of British intentions regarding the nature and scope of the proposed conversations. Accordingly, in response to an inquiry from BNA, the Embassy sent us an informal letter, which is attached herewith, setting forth their understanding of the Foreign Office proposal.1 The British state they believe that the maintenance of the 3-mile limit is of the greatest importance and they are concerned at the manner in which the practice of claiming greater limits is growing. The Foreign Office is presently considering what measures, if any, would be best designed to uphold the 3-mile limit. Among other devices, they are considering admitting a “contiguous zone” outside the 3-mile limit, in which the littoral state could exercise limited jurisdiction for revenue and other purposes. Before deciding on such a course the British would like to discuss the problem with us.

EUR favors our agreeing to hold the talks, on the grounds that it would be useful to hear the British views and to have an opportunity to comment on any action, such as invoking a doctrine of the contiguous zone, which they may contemplate. It is also possible that such informal talks, by contributing to a greater understanding of the current practices of the two countries in territorial waters, might lay the groundwork for further cooperation in upholding international law on this subject. Ambassador Jessup2 has concurred in the desirability of having the talks and has suggested that the Department should bring in as a consultant some outstanding private authority on international law relating to territorial waters.

As raised by the British, the matter is primarily a legal one and EUR recommends that the action responsibility be assigned to the Legal Advisor’s office. That office would presumably then arrange for the necessary coordination within the Department to ensure appropriate consideration of various related questions in this general field of interest to other offices in the Department. The following are examples of some of the related questions: the United Kingdom’s case against Norway, now under consideration in the International Court; recent Icelandic claims to a wider belt of territorial waters, in which British interests are also involved; Swedish difficulties with the USSR in the Baltic; various problems in which we and the British are involved in the Persian Gulf; and numerous issues with Canada concerning jurisdiction over territorial waters. While it is not suggested that the scope of the talks should be broadened beyond what has been [Page 1691] proposed by the British, problems such as these may arise incidentally during the course of the conversations.

The Legal Advisor’s office has, in the meantime, been in informal contact with the Embassy with regard to this matter and has proposed that these talks be held during the middle of September. Mr. Tebbit indicated that he believed that time would be agreeable to the British but that he would put the matter up to London at once and let us know their views.


It is recommended that the informal preparations of the Legal Advisor’s office be confirmed and that that office take charge of the conduct of the conversations, concerting their action with other interested offices of the Department.

  1. Reference is to Tebbit’s letter of June 23, p. 1686.
  2. Ambassador at Large, Department of State.