United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

by PSA Staff | September 24th, 2012 | |Subscribe

This article was written by two Spring 2012 Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program.  All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.

In 2004 and 2007, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was presented to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and both times the Committee passed the Convention. However, the Convention was never brought to the Senate for a full vote on both occasions. With the United States Navy patrolling every ocean in the world and an American economy struggling with high energy costs, the United States Senate should ratify the Convention as soon as possible.

First, look at the national security rationale: ratifying the Convention would help us stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, curtail the flood of illegal drugs into our cities, stem the flow of illegally trafficked humans that are often forced into slave labor, and enhance our intelligence operations above and below the sea.

The U.S. Navy’s top lawyer has said that the Convention strengthens our ability to conduct maritime interdictions, which is a critical aspect of our efforts to stop the trafficking of drugs and persons and conduct counter-proliferation operations.  Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard has stated that “our many bilateral and multilateral law enforcement agreements that we rely upon to stop drug smugglers, interdict human traffickers and protect our oceans are predicated upon the convention.” But those agreements were made with governments whose administrations change with elections, so ratification would enshrine these agreements permanently. The Convention also defines a stateless vessel, which is very important in counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation operations, and anti-piracy operations

John Negroponte, who served as the first ever Director of National Intelligence under the George W. Bush administration, argues that our non-ratification has “created self-imposed obstacles to securing the most widespread possible cooperation in our counter-proliferation and counter-narcotics operations at sea.” He points to instances where friendly countries, because of our non-participation in the Convention, have declined to cooperate with us on missions that are part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global effort to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction that was launched under the last Bush administration.  Admiral Papp also cites instances where countries within South and Central America won’t cooperate with us on interdiction of suspected drug or human traffickers because of jurisdictional claims, and without our participation in the Convention we have no mechanism for disputing these claims.

Regarding intelligence operations, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that “the Convention in no way harms our intelligence collection activities or constrains our military operations.” In fact, the Convention enhances our intelligence operations by affording our submarines the right to transit submerged and guaranteeing over-flight rights.

No less convincing than the national security arguments are the economic ones. The resource exploration covered under the Convention is costly and complicated; ratification of the Convention would provide greater clarity to American energy exploration endeavors and thus improve America’s energy security. Should the U.S. Senate ratify the Convention, American energy companies would be provided with a level of legal certainty that currently does not exist. The Convention provides territorial and operational clarity and certitude among the signatories by securing each coastal nation’s exclusive rights to the living and non-living resources of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Ratification will provide greater energy security by securing the U.S. exclusive rights for oil and gas production in the extended continental shelf.  At such a critical juncture in American history with rising gasoline and energy costs, ratification of the Convention would accelerate the pace of production of resource development technologies and encourage investment in these areas by U.S. oil and gas operators which would in time create jobs, help reduce the cost of energy, and reduce American dependence on foreign sources of energy.  According to the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. extended continental shelf could likely contain resources worth billions of dollars.

By our inaction on the Convention, we continue to allow Russia to pursue its ambitious Arctic explorations  at great cost to the American people, which is why successive Alaskan Governors and Senators of both parties have supported this treaty. Under the Law of the Sea, the United States would have the opportunity to expand its economic sovereignty over more than 291,000 square miles of extended continental shelf. Much of this is in the Arctic, which holds an estimated one quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas. As advances in extraction technology allow us to explore further away from our coastal shores, the Convention would provide American companies the certainty necessary when boundaries are murky and disputed.

We believe that a failure to ratify the treaty is a self-imposed barrier on America’s ability to discover and develop new sources of energy, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, deny the drug trade the freedom of movement it enjoys in international waters, and permanently guarantee the Navy’s navigational freedoms. Ratification of the Convention is long past due and we urge the Senate to give its advice and consent.


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  1. Chinese Naval Build-Up and Policy Response - Military News | Military News wrote,

    [...] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [...]

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.