John Lawrence Hargrove was identified yesterday as executive secretary of the International Law Society. The correct name of the organization is the American Society of International Law.
The U.S. government's assertion that most of the Gulf of Sidra consists of international waters where American vessels have the right to navigate and to defend themselves appears to be backed up by international legal opinion and precedent, legal scholars said last night.
These experts added that they would have to know more about the circumstances of yesterday's clash between U.S. and Libyan forces before they could say whether the United States had acted totally in accordance with international law.
But they agreed that Libya's claim that the entire gulf, which extends 200 miles from the Libyan coastline in the eastern Mediterranean, consists of Libyan territorial waters is not supported by generally recognized international law. Instead, they said, the standard used by most countries is the 12-mile territorial waters limit specified in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The United States is not a party to the U.N. convention, but it recognizes the 12-mile limit. That was reiterated yesterday by State Department spokesman Charles Redman, who said that, as far as the United States knows, only Burkina Faso, a small, landlocked West African nation with ties to Libya and the Soviet Union, recognizes the Libyan claim.
Bernard Oxman, a University of Miami law professor who has studied the Gulf of Sidra issue, noted in a telephone interview that the 12-mile limit usually is figured from straight coast lines along the sea. However, he added, "even under the special circumstances that sometimes pertain in a partially enclosed area like a gulf, the Libyans could not draw a line more than 24 miles maximum from any point of their coast."
The only exception, Oxman continued, "would be if the Libyans could demonstrate that they historically controlled all the waters of the gulf and that other countries historically acquiesed in that claim. But there is not adequate evidence in the historical record to support such a justification."
Edith Brown Weiss of the Georgetown University Law School, while specifying that she could not give an opinion on the combat aspects of the dispute, said:
"On the technical side, I would have to come out on the side of the United States that the Libyans cannot draw a straight base line across the mouth of the gulf and claim everything inside as their territorial waters. I think most experts would agree that other countries have the right of navigation there as long as they remain 12 miles outside the Libyan coastline."
John Lawrence Hargrove, executive director of the Washington-based International Law Society, said, "I'm not familiar with the technical aspects of the Libyan claims. But from looking at a map, it seems obvious under current rules of international law that the U.S. claim that Sidra is not properly closable is a sound position.
"Assuming the U.S. has a good basis for its position, we would be doing what is normal and expectable as a major maritime power by traversing these waters by vessel or overflight to assert our position," he added. "To do that, even when using military vessels, should not be regarded by the coastal power as a hostile act, and it would be on shaky grounds in resorting to force.
"Our presence there is, in itself, not an act of force against Libya, and we are entitled to do what is reasonable and necessary in self defense. There may be a question about whether taking out their bases and vessel was necessary to protect ourselves, but the answer to that would depend on the military circumstances, which I don't know."