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LOST and Found: Senate Moves Toward Ratification of U.N.'s 'Law of the Sea Treaty'

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is advocating ratification of a treaty that critics warn could give the U.N. powers over American waterways (Reuters).

The Senate is gearing up to ratify a Nixon-era U.N. treaty meant to create universal laws to govern the seas -- a treaty critics say will create a massive U.N. bureaucracy that could even claim powers over American waterways.

LOST -- the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, also called the Law of the Sea Treaty -- regulates all things oceanic, from fishing rights, navigation lanes and environmental concerns to what lies beneath: the seabed's oil and mineral wealth that companies hope to explore and exploit in coming years.

But critics say the treaty, which declares the sea and its bounty the "universal heritage of mankind," would redistribute American profits and have a reach extending into rivers and streams all the way up the mighty Mississippi.

The U.N. began working on LOST in 1973, and 157 nations have signed on to the treaty since it was concluded in 1982. Yet it has been stuck in dry dock for nearly 30 years in the U.S. and never even been brought to a full vote before the Senate.

But swelling approval in the Senate and the combined support of the White House, State Department and U.S. Navy mean LOST may be ready to unfurl its sails again.

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a January confirmation hearing that he intends to push for ratification. "We are now laying the groundwork for and expect to try to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty. So that will be one of the priorities of the committee, and the key here is just timing -- how we proceed."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying the treaty is vital for American businesses and the Navy, told Kerry that his committee "will have a very receptive audience in our State Department and in our administration." 

LOST apportions "Exclusive Economic Zones" that stretch 200 miles from a country's coast and establishes the International Seabed Authority to administer the communal territory farther out. The treaty's proponents say it clears up a murky legal area that has prevented companies from taking advantage of the deep seas' wealth.

"American firms and businesses want legal certainty so they can compete with foreign companies for marine resources," said Spencer Boyer, director of international law and diplomacy at the Center for American Progress. Without the clearly defined authority established by the treaty, "there's confusion -- a lot of businesses don't want to take that risk."

The American military is looking for another kind of certainty from LOST -- a guarantee of safe passage through all seaways, a right China sought to deny an unarmed Navy vessel Monday in its own Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.

"The Convention codifies navigation and overflight rights and high seas freedoms that are essential for the global mobility of our armed forces," the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in a June 2007 letter to Senate leadership.

LOST has even managed to unify environmental groups and deep-sea miners, who both see something to gain in the treaty.

"We gain sovereignty, we gain territory, we gain access to places that we have not had access to as easily," said Don Kraus, president of Citizens for Global Solutions, a group that advocates strengthening international institutions. "We don't stand to lose anything."

But critics say clauses built into the treaty could directly harm American interests. They say it could force the U.S. to comply with unspecified environmental codes, and that the treaty gives environmental activists the legal standing to sue over river pollution and shut down industry, simply because rivers feed into the sea.

The treaty allows environmental groups to bring lawsuits to the Law of the Sea Tribunal in Germany, a panel of 21 U.N. judges who would have say over pollution levels in American rivers. Their rulings would have the force law in the U.S., according to a reading in a 2008 Supreme Court decision by Justice John Paul Stevens.

"You've got an unaccountable tribunal that will surely be stacked with jurists hostile to our interests," said Chris Horner, author of "Red Hot Lies," a book critical of environmentalists. "This would never pass muster if the Senate held an open, public debate about this."

Legal experts also warn that the treaty demands aid for landlocked countries that lack the access and technology to mine the deep seas -- and that it might not even benefit the U.S. at all.

"You have to pay royalties on the value of anything you extract (from the deep seabed), those royalties to be distributed as the new bureaucracy sees fit, primarily to landlocked countries and underdeveloped countries," said Steven Groves, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. American money would also go to fund the International Seabed Authority, which Groves warned "would have the potential to become the most massive U.N. bureaucracy on the planet."

"The whole theory of the treaty is that the world's oceans and everything below them are the common heritage of mankind," said Groves. "Very socialist."

Any nation that is party to the treaty can have a seat on the tribunal and seabed authority -- even ones that don't have access to the sea. The current vice president of the tribunal represents Austria, a landlocked nation that hasn't had a sea berth since the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in the First World War.

Some legal experts worry that without ratification, the U.S. will lose a seat at the table as maritime law continues to be codified and resources get divvied up. But opponents note that many of the benefits offered the U.S., such as navigation rights, are already international custom, and that the U.S. has effected the treaty without being party to it. President Reagan's initial opposition on the basis of seabed laws forced the rewriting of the original treaty in 1994, which led the U.S. to sign it, but not to ratify it.

Its complexity, however, still beguiles even experts, who say it is unlikely to be understood when brought to a vote in the Senate.

"The thing is about 150 pages long -- meaning there are exactly zero people in the Senate who have read it," said Groves.