320.22/6–2554: Circular airgram

The Secretary of State to Certain Diplomatic Offices1


CA–7624. Subject: Continental Shelf and Fisheries.

The following instruction is not to be acted upon until receipt of telegraphic instructions from the Department to do so.

At the Eighth United Nations General Assembly the United States unsuccessfully opposed passage of Resolution 798,2 which was sponsored by Iceland and which provided that the Assembly would not deal with any parts of the International Law Commission’s codification and development of the law of the high seas and territorial waters until all parts have been completed; this may take a considerable number of years. The United States particularly desires passage of the draft articles on the continental shelf,3 since these support our ideas and activities relating to the shelf. Although we are unable to accept certain aspects of the International Law Commission’s draft articles on high seas fisheries as presently drafted, we favor discussion and an attempt to reach an agreeable compromise on their substance. The adoption of Resolution 798 by the Assembly strengthened the determination on the part of a few countries (especially Iceland, Korea, and some Latin Americans) to designate large areas of the high seas off their coasts as fishing zones reserved for exclusive use by their nationals. These coastal states are probably motivated by a combination of factors: an idea that an extension of territorial jurisdiction for one or more purposes will “cost nothing” and may be of value; a desire to monopolize coastal fish; and a desire to tax foreign fishing vessels.

[Page 1698]

At the recent Caracas Inter-American Conference4 it was decided to hold a hemispheric meeting in 1955 to consider problems of the continental shelf, fisheries, and related subjects. It is expected that the United States free seas position will have little support in this forum. In addition to other considerations, prior action in the United Nations would have the effect of improving the United States position at the coming hemispheric meeting.

There are a number of reasons for wanting to uphold the doctrine of freedom of the seas: (1) Freedom of the seas for purposes of fishing and navigation is one of the basic precepts of international law, and abandonment would constitute distinct retrogression from the standpoint of law and order in community nations. (2) Freedom of the seas is an integral whole which can be gradually destroyed by the removal of individual segments. There are a number of states which, like the United States, have large fishing, commercial or naval interests and which are vitally interested in upholding the doctrine of freedom of the seas. (3) Although freedom of the seas is advantageous to those countries which have sizable commercial, fishing or naval interests and activities, it is equally advantageous to countries with no large interests in any of these spheres. Although freedom of the seas is a doctrine which has been universally accepted for several centuries, there was a time when a few large and powerful nations controlled the seas for their own purposes. If the doctrine is abandoned, it is likely that a few powerful nations will again claim the right to control the seas and the smaller riparian nations will be unable to enforce their claims. Hence the doctrine of freedom of the seas benefits the small non-commercial, non-fishing, and non-naval states in a manner which, for their own self-interest, should persuade them of the value of its continuance. (4) Enforcement of exclusive zones will result in uneconomic utilization of resources of the seas and adversely affect consumers in most countries of the world. Many coastal states have neither the scientific nor industrial facilities to explore or utilize efficiently the marine resources in the waters off their coasts. In the past many valuable fishing grounds on the high seas off the coasts of small states would have remained undiscovered except for the exploration by nationals of the large “fishing nations”. Many of these fishing grounds could not yield cheap food except through the activities of large modern fleets. To close such fishing grounds to all except the small fleets of the riparian state would result in uneconomic utilization, increased cost to the consumer and an inability to conserve the fish because of lack of scientific knowledge on the [Page 1699] part of the riparian state. (5) Arguments that riparian countries are as entitled to fish in waters above the shelf as to natural resources on the seabed and in the subsoil of the shelf have a certain superficial appeal but are of little substance. The fishing industry has been based for years on the theory of freedom of the seas, whereas exploration and exploitation of resources of the seabed and the subsoil of the shelf is a comparatively recent development and involves few, if any, nonnational vested interests. In addition, the resources of the seabed are stationary and normally require shore facilities for their efficient exploitation.

The United States desires (1) the reversal of the decision taken by the Assembly in Resolution 798, and (2) discussion of the continental shelf and fisheries at the Ninth General Assembly. If indicated support gives a reasonable chance of success, the United States is considering co-sponsoring an item on the agenda to this effect. While the United States is substantially satisfied with the International Law Commission’s articles on the continental shelf and desires their adoption as soon as possible, the United States expects to put forward substantial amendments to the fisheries articles. It is contemplated that other states will have substantive suggestions on one or both of these sets of draft articles.

Although there was no roll-call vote on Resolution 798 in the plenary session of the Assembly, there was a roll-call when the resolution was adopted in the Sixth Committee. The breakdown of this vote is as follows: [Page 1700]

Voted in Favor:
Denmark Sweden Argentina
Iceland Czechoslovakia Cuba
Iraq Byelorussia El Salvador
Liberia Poland Guatemala
Luxembourg Ukarine Honduras
Norway USSR Uruguay
Saudi Arabia
Voted Against:
Australia Israel United Kingdom
Belgium Netherlands Brazil
Canada New Zealand Ecuador
France Pakistan Panama
Greece Philippines
Afghanistan Indonesia Yugoslavia
Burma Iran Nicaragua
China Syria Peru
Egypt Thailand Venezuela
Ethiopia Turkey Chile
India United States Mexico
Were Absent:
Union of South Africa Bolivia Dominican Republic
Yemen Colombia Haiti
Paraguay Costa Rica Lebanon

[Page 1701]

The Embassy should ascertain as quickly as possible (1) the government’s view on the proposed move to reopen the question at the Ninth General Assembly, and, in the Embassy’s discretion, (2) whether the government would be willing to assist the United States and/or associate itself formally with the United States in sponsorship of an item on the agenda. It is our desire to have as many states as possible associated with us in the presentation of this matter to the UN. The Embassy should also use its discretion in presenting in support of our request any or all of the reasons in favor of freedom of the seas which were outlined above and which seem appropriate vis-à-vis a particular government.5

  1. Sent to Addis Ababa, Ankara, Athens, Auckland, Baghdad, Bangkok, Beirut, Belgrade, Brussels, Cairo, Canberra, Copenhagen, Damascus, Djakarta, The Hague, Jidda, Kabul, Karachi, London, Luxembourg, Manila, Monrovia, New Delhi, Oslo, Ottawa, Paris, Pretoria, Rangoon, Stockholm, Taipei, Tehran, and Tel Aviv. Repeated for information to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
  2. See the editorial note, p. 1664.
  3. These draft articles are printed as part of the report of the International Law Commission to the General Assembly covering the work of its fifth session (A/2456), ILC Yearbook, 1953, vol. II, p. 212. They were drafted after presentation of the Fourth Report on the High Seas submitted by François on Feb. 19, 1953. The text of the Fourth Report (A/CN.4/60) is printed in French, ibid., p. 1. The Commission discussed the Fourth Report at its meetings from June 16 to July 7, 1953, ibid., vol. I, pp. 72–170.
  4. For documentation on this Conference, held Mar. 1–28, 1954, see vol. iv, pp. 264 ff.
  5. The Department sent the substance of CA–7624 to all diplomatic offices in the other American republics as circular telegram 36, dated July 14, 1954, which concluded with the following paragraph:

    “Unless Embassy perceives objection ascertain (prior July 22 if at all possible) 1) government’s view proposed move to reopen question 9th GA, and in Embassy’s discretion, 2) whether government will assist US or associate itself with US in sponsorship item on agenda. Desire widest possible co-sponsorship. In ascertaining views foregoing questions Embassy should use discretion presenting any or all reasons in favor freedom seas outlined above which seem appropriate vis-à-vis particular government.” (320.22/7–1454)