By the 1960s, technological advances in weaponry raised concerns that nations might attempt to place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction on the seabed, or ocean floor. On 18 December 1967, the United Nations (UN) set up a committee to study means to ensure that the seabed was reserved for peaceful purposes. On 18 March 1969, the Soviet Union presented a draft treaty that called for the complete demilitarization of the seabed beyond a 12-mile national coastal limit. The U.S. government, which considered underwater listening devices as essential to U.S. defense, wanted only to ban the placement of weapons of mass destruction on the seabed. On 22 May 1969, the United States submitted a draft treaty calling for a prohibition on the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on the seabed beyond a 3-mile limit. Upon the announcement of the draft, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared that an agreement on the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction on the ocean floor would "prevent an arms race before it has a chance to start."
Following prolonged talks, the two sides managed to agree on a joint draft treaty that greatly resembled the original U.S. proposal. On 7 October 1969, the draft was submitted to the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD), a UN standing committee. The joint draft was then discussed and revised within both the CCD and the UN, and on 7 December 1970 the UN General Assembly approved a final draft by a vote of 104 to 2 (with El Salvador and Peru dissenting), with 2 abstentions (Ecuador and France).
The Seabed Treaty prohibits emplacement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction on the seabed as well as launch installations or storage facilities (but not listening cables and similar nonweapon devices). The treaty allows signatories to undertake verification using their own means or within the framework established by the UN. The extent of territorial waters, at that time unclear in international law, was also a subject of much discussion. In the treaty, a 12-mile limit is used to define the seabed area and, hence, the application of the treaty.
The eleven-article treaty was officially called 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. It entered into force on 18 May 1972 when the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and twenty-two other nations had ratified it. By 2004, sixty-six nations had taken that step.
The treaty is in many ways similar to the Antarctic Treaty (23 June 1961), the Outer Space Treaty (10 October 1967), and the Latin American Tlatelolco Treaty (25 April 1969), all of which sought to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons in certain defined areas.
Seaborg, Glenn T., with Benjamin S. Loeb. The Atomic Energy Commission under Nixon: Adjusting to Troubled Times. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.; United Nations. Report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction. New York: United Nations, 1973.; United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. International Negotiations on the Seabed Arms Control Treaty. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973.