294. Despatch From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State 1

No. 304


  • Department’s Circular Instruction CA–4463, November 13, 1957


  • International Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Law of the Sea

At the end of the instruction under reference the Department requested posts receiving the instruction only for information to estimate the attitude of the governments to which they are accredited towards the proposal set forth by the instruction. This was that, in an effort to enlist the support of a greater number of states for a three-mile limit on territorial waters, there might be adopted an arrangement by which a contiguous zone extending perhaps nine miles out to sea beyond the three-mile limit might be reserved to the exclusive jurisdiction of the adjacent state for purposes of fisheries, but for nothing else.

The Soviet position on these matters has presumably been made clear at the various sessions of the International Law Commission2 at which a “draft” convention on these maritime problems has been prepared. No official Soviet statements have recently been made on this subject, but an article appearing in the June 1957 issue of the authoritative magazine Soviet State and Law reviews the general field and reiterates the well-known Soviet stand.

It is obvious that the USSR will remain adamant on the question of a 12-mile limit for territorial waters. The article notes that this boundary was first established by Soviet decree on May 28, 1918, and that the Soviet Government has not deviated from this delineation since that time. It is further alleged that less than a third of the nations of the world have agreed to a three-mile limit (20 out of 71) and that the maritime European People’s Democracies have adopted the 12-mile limit (except for 10 miles in the case of Albania). The magazine states that, in general, nations should be free to decide on the limits of their own territorial waters on the basis of historical tradition and in consonance with the demands of national security and economics.

The firmness of the Soviet stand in this matter is indicated by the fact that Moscow has chosen to denounce the supporters of a narrow three-mile zone as the major imperialistic powers of the [Page 605] world. Their interest in this matter is said to stem from their desire to be able to penetrate close to the shores of other states to exploit the off-shore maritime resources of those countries, especially when the latter are underdeveloped, as well as to be able legally to send their warships close to the coasts of small countries so as to conduct threatening naval demonstrations. Since the question of a three versus a 12-mile limit has thus been framed in terms of the cold war, the Soviet Union can hardly be expected to retreat from its position, and it is exceedingly unlikely that it would modify its stand even if the great majority of nations could be persuaded to adopt some common demarcation of the belt of territorial waters in a width substantially less than 12 miles.

Soviet State and Law is also quite insistent on the proposition that within the area of territorial waters, however defined, a state exercises absolute sovereignty in the same sense that it does over terra firma. This is brought out in the article’s denunciation of the theories of certain “bourgeois” legal experts who contend that a state exercises only the rights of “police control” or “supervision” over territorial waters but no more, which in the Soviet view would mean that a nation would be required to allow foreigners to exploit fish and other resources in territorial waters on the same basis as it permitted its own citizens to do so.

While the foregoing would seem to dispose effectively of any idea that the Soviets might look favorably on the Canadian proposal noted in the instruction under reference in so far as two successive off-shore seaward zones of three and nine miles respectively are concerned, it should be added that the USSR may favor the idea of granting exclusive fishing rights in contiguous waters beyond the fixed territorial limit, which in their case would be 12 miles. In fact, the article offers two criteria for the determination of such fishing zones when it suggests that they can be justified either because the fish obtained are extremely important to the food supply of the particular country (although not specified, Japan may be a case in point) or because the presence of fish in these waters is a result of measures taken by the particular state to propagate them (as in the case of salmon). The article, however, tends to be somewhat vague on the question of extreme claims of a width of up to 200 miles for territorial waters based on the seaward extension of the continental shelf, and it is likely that the Soviet Government would generally not be willing to support such a stand.

For the Ambassador:

David E. Mark
First Secretary of Embassy
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 399.731/12–1757. Confidential.
  2. S.B. Krylov was the Soviet Member on the International Law Commission.