Crying UNCLOS

Hearings finally opened today in Senator John Kerry’s push to get the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before year’s end. The onslaught by Kerry comes as significant pushback is still being registered by his Republican counterparts, and calls that the trea-

I have to pause at this point to note that this is my no less than fifth attempt to write substantively about UNCLOS and its importance to the United States to ratify. I will further note that I don’t believe that I’ll be able to finish this post as intended. For me to actually be able to write about UNCLOS and the specific effects non-ratification would have on the United States, I would have to read the thing. And that is something that I just cannot do. Not for you, not for my love of the UN, not without serious bodily harm as a consequence for my not studying the text.

What is preventing me from reading the treaty? The Convention on the Law of the Sea is composed of seventeen parts. Which are in turn composed of three hundred and twenty articles. Nine annexes are also included within the Convention. Within that tome of international legalese, it finds rooms to preemptively settle scores of disputes that would likely arise between the various sea-going nations, ranging from matters of determining the Exclusive Economic Zone of each state to freedom of movement for armed vessels. Over 160 nations have so far signed on to and ratified the Convention, leaving the United States on the outside looking in, and me unable to look at the words “Law of the Sea” without my eyes glazing over.

Luckily for me, it’s not my job to read this overlong treaty. And it isn’t even the job of the Senators who will be hopefully voting on the treaty in the near future. Instead, that task likely falls to their various Legislative Directors and Assistants. I do not envy them at this juncture. But judging from the resistance that is being registered by certain Republicans, those staffers haven’t read the documents all that well themselves. As Mark Goldberg puts it in his back of the envelope whip count, this should be low-hanging fruit, but instead stands a solid chance of not reaching the 2/3rds majority required for ratifications.

So I give up. Rather than try to explain the scope and breadth of why the US should join UNCLOS myself, and I’ll let Secretary of State Hillary Clinton go to town on why opponents are mistaken in their resistance to the treaty:

Are there any serious drawbacks to joining this Convention? Opponents of the treaty believe there are, but they are mistaken. Some critics assert that joining the Convention would impinge upon U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, joining the Convention will increase and strengthen our sovereignty. The Convention secures the United States an expansive exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf, with vast resources in each. U.S. accession would lock-in our rights to all of this maritime space.

Some say that the Convention’s dispute resolution provisions are not in the U.S. interest. On the contrary, these procedures – which the United States sought – help protect rather than harm U.S. interests. As in many other treaties, including free trade agreements, such procedures provide the United States with an important tool to help ensure that other countries live up to their obligations. And U.S. military activities will never be subject to any form of dispute resolution.

Other critics have suggested that the Convention gives the United Nations the authority to levy some kind of global tax. This is also untrue. There are no taxes on any individuals, corporations, or anyone else under the Convention.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panneta on the national security benefits of acceding to UNCLOS:

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our [navy’s] actions. We undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?

At the other end of this arc sits the Strait of Hormuz, a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners. We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there despite Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and help to further isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

 These are the key reasons for accession, which is critical to our sovereignty and our national security. That is why I fail to understand the arguments opposed to the treaty.

And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on the military’s ongoing desire to join UNCLOS:

The United States is a maritime nation—militarily and economically. We have the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone and the world’s largest and most capable navy. We stand to benefit from the additional legal certainty and public order this treaty would provide. Moreover, this certainty will become increasingly important as the global security environment becomes more competitive and more complex.

From the beginning, U.S. negotiators have been involved in the development of the Convention and have ensured it would both serve and protect our interests. Not joining the Convention limits our ability to shape its implementation and interpretation. We will need that influence if we intend to continue to lead in global maritime affairs.

Now is the time for the United States to join the Convention. We should not wait. The global security environment is changing. The Pacific and the Arctic are becoming increasingly important. And some nations appear increasingly willing to assert themselves and to push the boundaries of custom and tradition in a negative direction.

And Robert Stevens, CEO of Lockheed Martin on the economic importance that the US ratifies the Convention:

Ratification is now critical to the important U.S. economic and national security interests advanced by access to the vast mineral and rare earth metals resources on the ocean floor. These mineral resources are vital to a wide array of defense and high-tech manufacturing products and systems – computers, mobile phones, lasers, aircraft engines, specialty glass, and missile guidance systems are just a few of the many products that contain rare earth metals. Considerable financial investment is required to access these mineral reserves and ensure that the U.S. has a reliable long-term source of supply that cannot be interrupted, monopolized, or otherwise controlled by foreign governments. That investment is only going to be secured for rights clearly recognized and protected within the established treaty-based framework.

This isn’t a case of liberal internationalism run amuck, or idealism in the face of harsh realities. Rather, the need for the United States to become a Party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea has been voiced by the White House continuously since the Reagan Administration, with support from the Armed Forces and the private sector. The only thing standing in the way for over thirty years has been the willful stubbornness of the United States Senate. A hard-fought battle to get many of the United States demands met in the 1994 Agreement didn’t manage to dislodge the Convention then, so maybe Senator John McCain’s promised amendments will bring the votes of those Senators with reservations. In any case, I’ll gladly support the Chairman Kerry in his push to finally get this treaty out of the Senate. Just don’t ask me to read the thing.

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2 Responses to “Crying UNCLOS”

  1. Thanks for gathering these statements here, very helpful. It’s seriously time for the US to quit bickering and sign on to this Convention (among many others). As American power/stature/whatever-you-want-to-call-it declines (even marginally, I’m not talking complete and utter ruin here) we will find it more to our advantage to participate more actively in international institutions and actually start playing the game we expect others to play. This is part of the smart power argument (for the umpteen-millionth time), but it really is the most effective, efficient, and practical way to move forward.

    Are there any reasonable, thought-out arguments being made by senators against ratification? Or is it all just nationalistic bluster?

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