John Temple Swing passed away on the afternoon of Friday, October 4th, 2013 after several weeks of illness. John was 84 years old and up to the day of his hospitalization in mid-September he was still actively working on behalf of US accession to the Law of the Sea Convention.
I can't hope to do justice to John's life and career in a short article, but I will try to relate his life and contributions to the interests of readers interested in foreign policy and the law of the sea. Beyond all I'll say below, I want to say first that he was a friend, a mentor, a colleague and a partner in advocacy for US interests in the Law of the Sea Convention. I feel truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to know and work with John for so many years.
Foreign Policy Career
John spent most of his career working in the field of foreign relations. After graduating from Harvard and earning his law degree at Yale, and after service in the US Army and a couple years in private practice of law, John joined the Council on Foreign Relations in 1963. After advancing from Director of Administration to Associate Executive Director, John served as Vice President and Secretary from 1971 to1988, served as President pro tempore in 1985-86, and as Executive Vice President from 1989 to 1993. He then moved to the Foreign Policy Association to serve as its President from 1993 to 1995.
Explaining the negotiations at the LOS Conference
I met John in Geneva when I joined the US delegation to the LOS Conference in March of 1979 on which he had been serving as an advisor to the leadership of the delegation. John had already made a substantial mark on Law of the Sea policy with his article in Foreign Affairs "Who will Own the Oceans?" This article was written after the completion of the Informal Composite Negotiating Text, which was the first complete statement by the three negotiating group chairs of the status of the negotiations in text they felt was a basis for further negotiation.
John used the article to provide not just a statement of where the negotiations stood, but where they began and the direction they were heading. He noted the framework of the basic compromise: a 12 mile territorial sea, a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and a regime for seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction. He also noted the evolving regime of transit passage and the ongoing debate over freedom of navigation in the EEZ.
In the article, John noted the seabed mineral industry preference for a tightly constrained "Authority" that would provide potential exploiters of seabed minerals with (1) right of access, (2) security of tenure, and (3) sanctity of contract." On the other hand, he noted the preference of developing countries for a single developer, the "Enterprise," to be chartered to exploit seabed mineral resources.. He also noted compromise proposals that provided protections for developing countries under licensing system for seabed developers (including production limitations to protect land based producers). He also noted the potential compromise of a "banking system" in which a developer would propose two sites, one of which would be "banked" for future development in a joint venture between developing states and private operators. He also pointed out that a critical issue would be the relationship between the 36 member Council and the Assembly of all states parties, and the independence that the Council might have in some areas of decision-making. (At this point I can't help but note that all of these issues were resolved in line with US preferences by the 1994 Agreement on Implementation and have been cemented in place by the rules of the International Seabed Authority.)
One of the points John made at the end of his article was this:
"A representative of one of the american companies that has taken a lead in the development of deep-sea mining technology said to me at the close of the Caracas session that, while the conditions of exploitation were indeed important to the mining companies, what they needed above all was relative certainty about the conditions under which they would operate."
That point remains as relevant today as it was in 1976, and it applies to the extended continental shelf as much as it does the deep seabed..
After the LOS Conference:
After the LOS negotiations were concluded, John became a board member of the Council on Ocean Law, a non-profit organization dedicated to informing the public and policy-makers about the importance of law of the sea to the United States, the details contained in the Convention, and, through its Panel on the Law of Ocean Uses, key issues related to the application of the convention and the opportunities to revise (and to implement those revisions to) the Convention so it could overcome US objections laid out by President Reagan in 1982. John worked hard to ensure that funds were donated to support COL's work, a task in which, as Treasurer of the Council, I worked closely with him.
In 2003, John published a second article in Foreign Affairs, "What Future for the Oceans?" It was published just in time for Senator Lugar's first hearings on the Convention before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This article provided a call for the US to adopt an effective oceans policy based on the recommendations of the Pew Oceans Commission and the Administration's own Ocean Policy Commission chaired by former CNO, Adm. James Watkins. You may find this article at
John also connected me with opportunities to write about the Convention, including an article in the Journal of International Affairs on "Mineral Resources of Stateless Space: Lessons from the Deep Seabed" and a video interview on law of the sea and the Arctic for the 2008 Great Decisions" program of the Foreign Policy Association.
The Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans
The Council on Ocean Law finally closed its doors in 2005. Seeing a continuing need, only two years later John suggested to me that we establish a new group that could ensure that information about the Convention was made available for the anticipated push for ratification under the Bush Administration in 2007. Thus, the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans was born. ROLCO has gone on to be an information source on the substance of the Convention, one of several conveners of a network of industry, environmental, governance, professional and security organizations that share interests in the Convention, and an educator in the history of the Convention and its importance in areas such at the extended continental shelf, the deep seabed and resolution of disputes.
John served as the eyes and ears of ROLCO in New York, often alerting me to speakers and events for me to follow up with in Washington. He also helped other organizations research and edit articles and reports related to the Law of the Sea Convention, leaving his mark, but not his name, on the final result. We spoke several times a week, providing me perspective from outside the Washington beltway, acting as a sounding board for ideas and occasionally helping temper my enthusiasm with pragmatism.
The Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans will continue, though we will feel the loss of John's counsel. For me, his memory renews my own commitment to this effort. But I warmly recall the encouragement that he gave me back when I was a "newbie" to the law of the sea delegation, an outsider as an engineer and economist in a sea of lawyers - his encouragement helped me believe that I could make my way in a field that I had not anticipated or planned for, but which, in retrospect, couldn't have been more appropriate. Thank you, John, for that beginning and for all the friendship along the way.
Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans