The Law of the Sea Convention, in effect since 1994 and ratified by 160 countries, sets international freedom of navigation rules and the guidelines for the use of deep-sea resources, including mining and fishing. The United States has not ratified the treaty, first completed in 1982. Without signing the agreement, then-President Ronald Reagan announced in 1983 the United States would act “in accordance” with the convention’s traditional uses of the oceans except for the deep-sea mining provisions.
The treaty was amended in 1994 during the Clinton administration to meet the Reagan objections. Both the Clinton White House and George W. Bush’s administration in 2004 and ’07, along with a bipartisan group of senators, supported ratification. Nonetheless it failed to come to a vote.
Why? As then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote in a Sept. 17, 2007, letter to her state’s Republican senators, “Ratification has been thwarted by a small group of senators who are concerned about the perceived loss of U.S. sovereignty.”
Today, another small group is at it again, forcing Kerry to postpone any Senate vote on ratification until after the November elections. A two-thirds majority is required.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testified Wednesday before the foreign relations panel, along with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. She said it was being raised again because of “security and economic urgency.”
Supporting the latter argument, she said, previously U.S. energy companies weren’t technologically prepared to take advantage of the provisions that allow a country to claim economic sovereignty to 600 nautical miles from its coasts. That’s far beyond the current 200 nautical miles.
“U.S. oil and gas companies are now ready, willing and able to explore this area,” she said, but they need “international legal certainty” from the treaty “before they will or could make the substantial investments . . . needed to extract these far offshore resources.”
Clinton described arguments against the treaty as being “based on ideology and mythology, not in facts, evidence or the consequences of continuing failure to accede to the treaty.”
For example, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) raised the prospect that “under this treaty, any country could sue the United States in the International Tribunal Law of the Sea, not in the U.S. courts, or take the U.S. before binding arbitration,” under provisions designed to “reduce and control pollution of the maritime environment.”
Inhofe went on to cite an article by William C.G. Burns which, he said, named the United States as “the most logical state to bring action against.” Burns, however, in his 2006 article, adds that the convention “does not impose an absolute prohibition against pollution” and that it would be difficult to succeed with such legal action.