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The Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof (Seabed Treaty) was adopted on 11 February 1971 and entered into force on 18 May 1971 with 84 signatures, but has 94 parties since 2014. The Outer Space Treaty, Antarctic Treaty, and the Latin American Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty share common characteristics with the Seabed Treaty; they were implemented to prevent international conflicts from occurring in their respective areas. While treaties like the Antarctic Treaty banned military activity for scientific preservation, the Seabed Treaty was created to prevent an underwater arms race and to promote peaceful exploration of the ocean floor.
Advances in oceanographic technology from the 1930’s through to the 1970’s created the idea that the before unreachable ocean floor was closer to exploration than ever before. Off the coast of Bermuda in 1934 William Beebe and Otis Barton take the first deep-sea dive and reach depths up to 3,000 feet (914 meters). In 1941 during World War II the first electronic navigation systems are developed to increase bombing precision. After the creation of the system it is tested for underwater use and later led to the first deep-sea camera equipment, side-scanning sonar instruments, and launched the development of technology for ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles). '1901-1970 Ocean Exploration Timeline', Sea and Sky.
The steady progress in oceanographic technology caused international concerns around states using the seabed as a new realm for military and nuclear warfare. Since there were no clearly established rules regarding the untapped ocean floor there was an urgent need to maintain a peaceful purposes and observations of the seabed. On 18 December 1967 the UN General Assembly created an ad hoc committee that was made to study different ways to preserve the seabed for peaceful activities while ensuring 'that the exploration and use of the seabed and the ocean floor should be conducted in accordance with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, in the interests of maintaining international peace and security and for the benefit of all mankind.' ‘Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof’, U.S. Department of State. In 1969 US President Richard Nixon urged that forming an agreement resembling the Antarctic Treaty could prevent an arms race on the ocean floor before it has the opportunity to begin. ‘Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof’, U.S. Department of State.
The Soviet Union on 18 March 1969 submitted a draft treaty that called for complete demilitarization of the seabed beyond a 12-mile coastal zone and making any seabed installations open to parties of the treaty in exchange for something mutually beneficial to both states.
The draft treaty the US submitted on 22 May 1969 called for the prohibition of the placement of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons on the ocean floor beyond a 3-mile band. A difference between the two nations' treaties was what exactly was to be prohibited from being placed on the seabed. The Soviet Union called for a prohibition of military equipment of any kind, including submarine surveillance, to be placed on the ocean floor. The United States argued that complete demilitarization would not be accepted due to security/surveillance concerns. Another variation between the drafts was verification. Modelled after the Outer Space Treaty, the Soviet Union suggested in their draft that verification should be done by monitoring and inspecting all structures and installations. The United States countered that suggestion saying on the moon there are no national territories over which a country has jurisdiction. Therefore the Outer Space Treaty should not be used as a model to determine verification methods. The US said that any installation large enough to hold military equipment would not go unnoticed by the international community; verification would take place through observation and then violators would be dealt with accordingly. ‘Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Seabed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof’, U.S. Department of State.
On 7 October 1969 the Soviet Union and the United States submitted a joint draft to the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD), which was reviewed three times. Talks at the CCD and the United Nations touched on a few major concerns: some countries were in control of up to 200 miles of sea off their shorelines and unclear international conventions made defining territorial waters confusing. Eventually the treaty claimed a 12 miles limit of the seabed territory.
Another area of concern that was raised was the verification and provisions. Coastal states, such as Brazil, were concerned about the protection of their territory. To some, the treaty seemed to allow one nation to legally put weapons and military equipment 3 to 12 miles from the coast of another nation. Canada countered that part of the draft and urged that any verification methods done within the 12-mile limit of the coastal nation had to be approved by that nation ahead of time. Those states that did not believe that they had the ability to check for violations on their own were assured that they could apply for assistance of a third party nation.
By 7 December 1970 the U.N. General Assembly approved the final draft by a vote of 104 to 2 (El Salvador and Peru).
Article I of the 1971 Seabed Treaty bans state parties from placing any nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction, also including any facilities used to launch, store, or test such weapons on the ocean floor.
Article II provides the 'seabed zone' and states that the limit of the seabed zone referred to in Article I shall be within a 12-mile zone and 'shall be measured in accordance with the provisions of part I, section II, of that Convention and in accordance with international law.'
Article V promotes that the parties of the treaty continue furthering the effort in disarmament and to prevent an arms race on the seabed.
Article VII called for a review five years after the treaty would be entered into effect for its effectiveness and to determine whether to hold another review conference again in five years. The first three review conferences confirmed the effectiveness of the treaty and its success at so far preventing an arms race on the seabed.
Last updated on: 21 July 2017