Global Waterways: Access and Control

November 8, 1967

Report Outline
Problems Arising from Suez Canal Closure
Law and Custom on Use of Waterways
Controversy Over New Panama Treaties

Problems Arising from Suez Canal Closure

Blocking of the Suez Canal to navigation since last June 6, second day of the six-day Arab-Israeli war, has dramatically demonstrated the dangers and the consequences of tampering with freedom of passage through the world's strategic waterways. The United Arab Republic's decision to close the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea set in motion forces that precipitated the war, which in turn led to closing of the Suez Canal. Reopening of the canal, moreover, hinges upon an Arab-Israeli settlement complicated in no small part by Cairo's reluctance to abandon its long-standing policy of excluding Israeli shipping from the canal itself.

For five months now, all ships that followed the short route via Suez between European and Persian Gulf and Far Eastern ports have been forced to steam thousands of miles farther around the Cape of Good Hope to reach their destinations. The additional transportation time and costs impose a heavy burden on business and consumers. Yet that burden may have to be borne for many more months while the effort to find a workable way out of the Arab-Israeli conflict goes on. The whole affair underlines the penalties paid for breaching the right of free passage through international waterways and illustrates why maritime nations seek jealously to guard that right.

Another vital international waterway, the Panama Canal, is currently once more a political sore point between the governments of Panama and the United States. New treaties drafted to overcome objections in Panama to the status of the Canal Zone and the administration of the canal have come under attack both in the United States Congress and in Panama. Critics in Congress assert that the treaties would give Panama too much control over the canal; Panamanian critics contend, on the contrary, that the United States would yield too little. Thus the issue is political rather than commercial, though users of the canal point out that the higher tolls made necessary by certain treaty provisions would add to shipping costs and tend to push up freight rates.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
International Law and Agreements
Waterways and Harbors