Bob Woolmer and The Law of the Sea


Life sometimes throws up connections which take us aback. Yesterday I was blogging about Bob Woolmer, and about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as it covers the current spat in the Gulf over the Iranian detention of British marines.

I spent three successive Februaries of my life – three months in all – representing the UK at the annual UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, which was aiming to break a twenty year deadlock and get the Convention into force. This was viewed, rightly, as a major British priority, with both navigation and continental shelf provisions being essential national interests. A major aim was to prevent just the kind of gratuitous interference in shipping in which we have ourselves been indulging lately in the Persian Gulf. It doesn’t take too much thought to understand why it is in the UK interest that shipping should not be subject in general to armed interference.

Where was that conference every February? Jamaica. Where did I live all those months? The Pegasus hotel, in which Bob Woolmer has now been murdered. I know it intimately. So do generations of cricketers. The conference always coincided with the Kingston test, and the teams usually used the Pegasus. I once had the honour of being knocked flat in the lift by a boisterous Merv Hughes mock fighting with Alan Border. I also got to speak with Clive Lloyd over breakfast. I will never forget the impression he gave of incredible latent power, not just physical, like nobody else I ever met.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea had been stalled for decades, unable to enter into force because of a dispute between the developed and developing worlds over the ownership of minerals on the deep seabed, beyond continental shelves. In particular, the dispute was driven by over-optimistic estimates of the future value of Manganese nodules found around deep volcanic vents. The Convention proposed that companies exploiting the deep seabed should pay a levy to an international authority, which would apply it to international developmental purposes. The developing countries, represented by the G77, were for huge levies and great regulation. The US were totally against the whole principle. The Europeans were prepared to go along if levies were small and regulation light.

The negotiation had become completely hidebound as each group entrenched its position over twenty years of these meetings in Jamaica. I was able to play a key role in breaking down these barriers, simply by not accepting the position as hopeless and by reaching out to the G77. The fall of the iron curtain removed the hardline Soviet position behind the G77, and the coming of Clinton to replace Bush was going to make the US more flexible. At the key moment, the UK had the chairmanship of WEOG, the Western negotiating group, and I happened to be leading the UK delegation for ten days prior to the arrival of our very senior and greatly respected international legal expert.

I had gained the trust of the G77 group by the simple expedient of drinking with them over weeks and treating them as colleagues not opponents. The fact I was an Africanist helped. The key drafting of what became the Protocol amending the Convention was put down on paper by UN Deputy Secretary General Satya Nandan, G77 chair Dolliver Nelson and WEOG chair me, late one balmy Jamaican evening as we sat with our legs dangling in the Hotel Pegasus swimming pool, rum punches in hand. And that wording stuck through the next eighteen months of negotiation that resulted in the Convention entering into force.

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