Return of the Law of the Sea

The US helped to create the the UN Law of the Sea in 1982, but has never ratified it (

I started this series of blogs almost three years ago with a commentary on the Law of the Sea, ending with the hope that Senator Kerry, as the new Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would take the initiative and try to get Congress to finally ratify it.

Three years of silence. In that time, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Malawi and Switzerland have ratified it, bringing the total to 162 of the world’s nations. All industrialized nations have ratified it, and the US remains in the embarrassing company of Ethiopia, Burundi, Iran and North Korea.

All industrialized countries except the US have ratified the UN Law of the Sea (

Now, however, Senator Kerry has decided to bring it before the Foreign Relations Committee once again (it has been approved there once before). In support of it, the Committee will hear from the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oil companies and potential mining companies, various environmental organizations, and even the US Chamber of Commerce. Quite astonishing to see all of these on the same side of any issue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on May 23, 2012. Beside her are Secreatary of Defense Leon Panetta, and General Martin Demsey, Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (

Why now? Well, increasingly the US needs to be a legal player in the territorial negotiations that are underway in both the Arctic and the South China Sea. The stakes for the US in both regions are very high. It has no official vote, and anyway how can it push for enforcement of international laws that it hasn’t itself been able to ratify?

The Law of the Sea concerns so much that is of interest to the US – navigation rights, fisheries access, environmental protection, seabed-mining rights, prosecution of pirates like those of Somalia, as well as determination of territorial boundaries.

Refusal now to ratify the Law of the Sea will continue to embarrass the US, and will erode and destabilize emerging international agreements. The US loses authority, credibility, influence and certainly prestige while it remains unwilling to ratify the Law.

China claims most of the South China Sea, with resistance from four other nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. The US has growing interests in the region. (

So surely this time it will be ratified.

Dream on.

In the US Congress, the House of Representatives has already passed a bill refusing any funds for implementing the Law if it is ratified. Meanwhile, in the Senate – where any treaty needs to be passed by a 2/3 majority (67 votes) – 27 senators have already signed a letter pledging their opposition to the Law. Senator Kerry has agreed to delay any votes on the Law of the Sea until after the November election. This does not look hopeful

Shrill opposition, still easily found on the Internet, comes from those who think the Law would curtail US sovereignty, from those who hate and fear the UN, from those who believe the US should use its power to go its own way against the rest of the world, from those who believe the are two sets of rules – one for the US, one for everyone else.

The Law of the Sea assumes that the rule of law, based on negotiations and cooperation, is essential and valuable for all players. No one thinks the Law of the Sea is perfect, but it can evolve, as treaties do. The advantages of ratification for the US are overwhelming.

The US now has the another opportunity to regain some of its lost status, and to show some true leadership, with maturity and cooperation.

Failure to ratify the Law of the Sea is so dangerous.
We have so little time to try to get things right.

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