277. Memorandum Prepared by an Interdepartmental Working Group1


  • Basic Position of the United States re OAS Specialized Conference on Continental Shelf and Oceanic Waters

The purpose of this memorandum is to outline the basic approach of the United States to the OAS Specialized Conference on [Page 539] the Continental Shelf and Oceanic Waters which is to be held at Ciudad Trujillo in March 1956.


The Conference is not one which the United States views with pleasure. The resolution calling for it was adopted by the Tenth Inter-American Conference at Caracas as a means of avoiding a thoroughly undesirable resolution supporting the thesis of Chile, Ecuador and Peru that States have a right to claim 200 miles of the ocean off their coasts. The decision of the Caracas Conference has made it inevitable that the Ciudad Trujillo Conference be held. It is, therefore, necessary that the United States attend and exercise a restraining influence on the deliberations and conclusions insofar as they tend to oppose U.S. policy.

The United States has interests throughout the world in the problem of the regime of the high seas. Our views on this problem are shared by countries with important high seas fishing and maritime interests, most of which are located outside the Western Hemisphere. Opinion of the Latin American States generally favors wider extension of territorial waters than the United States would agree to and would grant other forms of jurisdiction to the coastal States over adjacent oceanic waters. For all these reasons, the United States prefers that any ultimate agreement on principles of international law to be incorporated in a regime of the high seas should be developed in a United Nations meeting rather than in a regional meeting of the OAS. The United States is, therefore, not prepared to make any basic concessions in its position on the regime of the high seas at the Ciudad Trujillo Conference.

Three factors create special difficulties for the United States at the Ciudad Trujillo Conference. The Latin American States generally lack trained scientists in the fields of geology, oceanography and related studies, particularly marine biology. This opens the Conference up to the danger that conclusions in the scientific field will be pressed on the basis of preconceived political opinions rather than scientific knowledge.

Moreover, there is a strong tendency on the part of the Latin Americans to think in juridical terms and enunciate basic juridical principles as the final product of any conference. This tendency is directly in conflict with the desire of the United States to avoid the adoption of resolutions on the regime of the high seas at a regional meeting.

Finally, it is clear that the Ciudad Trujillo Conference will be the scene of a determined effort by Chile, Ecuador and Peru, parties to the Santiago Declaration of 1952, to press for the adoption of [Page 540] resolutions which will support the principles of the Santiago Declaration, including the alleged right of coastal States to claim sovereignty or jurisdiction over wide areas of the high seas to a distance of at least 200 miles.

Basic U.S. Position

In the face of this situation, the basic position of the United States must be to urge that the Ciudad Trujillo Conference be conducted with the view to discussing, exploring and clarifying the nature of the problems which face the American republics in regard to the conservation of the resources of the continental shelf and oceanic waters rather than for the purpose of reaching conclusions on those subjects. As the Ambassador of the Dominican Republic recommended, it should be recognized that the Conference is the first one to be held on this subject by the OAS; that the subject is in all its ramifications one of extreme complexity; and that sustained and detailed study of the various technical, economic and legal phases of the problem is necessary before sound conclusions in any of these fields can be reached. Ill-advised and premature conclusions must be avoided. Methods of pursuing further study of the various problems referred to should be indicated as one of the principal results of the Conference. The various committees at the Conference should therefore be encouraged to submit to the plenary reports summarizing discussions rather than the usual batch of resolutions.

In order to reinforce that position, it is necessary for the United States to make clear in advance its firm decision to oppose any efforts to come to conclusions at this Conference on such controversial matters as the extent of territorial waters, the granting of a right to the coastal State to impose its jurisdiction over the high seas, or the creation of a recognized contiguous zone beyond territorial waters wherein fishing will be subject to control by the coastal State. It must be made clear that any attempt to put across decisions on these subjects will promote open controversy with the United States and other interested countries, and that the Conference will under those circumstances run the danger of failure and consequently of bringing discredit upon the OAS.

Specific U.S. Objectives

In the scientific field, the United States should emphasize the importance of the scientific approach as the basis for conservation particularly with reference to fisheries. Our Delegation should come prepared with a series of papers to be presented which will outline the present state of knowledge in these fields and the significance thereof; stress the lack of adequate knowledge in all parts of the [Page 541] Hemisphere; and indicate the areas in which additional study and research is most urgently required. The nature of research procedures should be clarified. In this connection, emphasis should be placed upon the need for national studies of domestic fisheries and fishery resources and establishment of adequate records of fishing operations and catches, as the basis for sound development of the fisheries and conservation. The establishment of any centralized OAS institute of oceanography for the Americans should be discouraged as being a less effective procedure for solution of problems concerned with development and conservation of fishery resources than national studies and cooperative undertakings among directly interested countries. The experience of European countries, in fact of all countries with major fisheries, might be cited as examples.

In the economic portions of the agenda, the United States should stress the importance of the conclusions of the Rome Conference on the Conservation of the Living Resources of the Sea. A strong demonstration should be given of U.S. achievements in the field of fishery conservation. An opportunity should be given to hear the accomplishments of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission preferably through a statement by its Director. It should be made clear that economic utilization of the resources of the continental shelf are not inconsistent with the maintenance of the superjacent waters as high seas.

In the juridical field, the United States must firmly and consistently oppose any thought of drafting conventions or treaties of any kind at this meeting. We should emphasize that as a general rule clarification of scientific and economic aspects should precede the adoption of legal conclusions. Moreover, the United States should take the position that resolutions should not be considered on subjects on which a wide cleavage of positions is evident at this stage. While most of the juridical discussions should be summarized in the form of reports, in general keeping with the general policy mentioned above, the United States can indicate its willingness to go along with resolutions on the following subjects: acceptance by States of a responsibility to promote the conservation of the living resources of the sea; desirability of agreements negotiated directly by all interested parties for the conservation of such resources; and the right of coastal States to participate in any such agreements covering waters adjacent to their coasts.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 397.022 IA/1–2356. Confidential. Approved by Murphy on January 30. A covering memorandum attached to the source text from Holland to Murphy, January 23, indicates that the paper was prepared by an informal working group established to carry out preparations for the conference. The group was composed of representatives of the Departments of State, Navy, Interior, and USIA.

    A letter from Phleger to J. Lee Rankin, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, dated January 31, transmitted a copy of the paper to the Department of Justice for clearance. (Ibid., 397.022 IA/1–3156) Rankin, in a letter to Phleger, dated February 3, reported that Justice saw no objection to the paper. (Ibid., 397.022 IA/ 2–356)

    Another copy of the source text in Department of State files was attached as Tab B to a memorandum from Kissick to Wilcox, dated February 17. Tab A was a report on the agenda for the conference; Tab C, a memorandum from Holland to the Secretary of State, February 10, and an attachment that Holland proposed as a supplement to the source text. Holland’s memorandum stated that irresponsible action disregarding the U.S. position, such as the resolution passed at Mexico City, undermined the usefulness of the OAS. He proposed that the United States make Latin American countries aware “that any repetition of the Mexico City performance at Ciudad Trujillo will inevitably impair our ability to implement the generous and constructive policies of economic cooperation which we have been pursuing with them… . We must be prepared to risk the consequences of making good on our warning regarding economic assistance if the Conference at Ciudad Trujillo does not produce an acceptable resolution.” (Ibid., 397.022 IA/2–1756)