The United States and the Law of the Sea: Time to Join
What Is Law of the Sea?
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS) is a set of rules for the use of the world’s oceans, which cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. The Convention was concluded in 1982 to replace a group of 1958 treaties that were out of date and unfavorable to America’s economy and security. LOS came into force in 1994, and to date, 152 countries and the European Commission have joined the treaty. The United States has not.
Its primary functions are to define maritime zones, protect the environment, preserve freedom of navigation and establish clear guidelines for businesses that depend on the sea for resources.
Necessary Changes To U.S. Law Or Policy
In 1983, Ronald Reagan directed U.S. agencies to comply with all of the provisions in LOS except for Part XI, which concerns deep-sea mining. With U.S. leadership, Part XI was reworked and the Convention was officially modified in 1994, addressing all U.S. concerns. Since 1983, the U.S. has been in voluntary compliance with the entire Convention and thus accession would not result in any changes to current U.S. domestic or foreign policy.
LOS And The U.S. Senate
In 2004 all 19 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously in favor of LOS. Although not a single Senator abstained or voted against the treaty, then Majority Leader Frist never brought it to the floor for a vote.
Why Join? It Helps Our Military
The U.S. military, which relies heavily on its ability to navigate on and fly freely over the sea, has been a strong advocate of LOS. In the absence of treaty law, the U.S. is forced to rely on customary law that can change as States’ practices change. Also under this customary law, countries often make unreasonable and irresponsible claims on marine territory to stop the U.S. military from defending U.S. interests. The U.S. has tried to talk around these claims, but without a legal framework to support us we risk compromising our intelligence and military operations at sea. Joining LOS will help us protect our military’s ability to freely navigate the oceans.
LOS Helps Us Protect The Environment
Oceans cover over 70 percent of the Earth. In the U.S., we have laws to keep marine resources available for future generations. LOS sets a global standard so that all countries are legally bound to protect the marine environment, protect fish stocks, and prevent pollution with as much care as the U.S. does. Joining LOS would send a message to the world that we care about the global environment.
LOS Benefits American Business
Each country has exclusive rights to manage the resources in areas near its coast. Under the terms of LOS, which maps out the boundaries of these areas, the American zone is larger than that of any country in the world. The size of this zone is 3.36 million square miles – bigger than the lower 48 states combined. In addition, under LOS, coastal states can exercise sovereign rights over natural resources within the extended continental shelf area beyond this territory. In addition, joining LOS, would give U.S. companies an opportunity to apply for licenses with the International Seabed Authority, which manages claims to resources in the deep seabed, an area over which no one country has sovereign rights.
Under LOS, the five Arctic states — Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the U.S. — can claim mineral and oil extraction rights in the Arctic seabed in areas that extend beyond their respective continental shelves. Joining LOS would protect the claims of U.S. firms to mineral resources and give us an opportunity to provide better management for the sensitive Arctic environment adjacent to U.S. boundaries.
We Can Do More As A Member Than As An Outsider
One benefit of membership is a permanent position on the International Seabed Authority, an organization of countries set up to regulate deep sea mining. With the world’s most powerful economy, the U.S. would have by far the most powerful vote on the council – or none at all if we choose to reject LOS.
Moreover, as of November 2004, members of LOS have the right to modify the treaty. As a member, the U.S. can use the treaty to seize new opportunities and protect our interests. By contrast, if we choose not to join, we put in jeopardy all of the provisions that U.S. negotiators worked tirelessly to negotiate into the treaty. Without the U.S. at the table, countries will be free to make changes without U.S. input.
For example, since LOS codifies traditional law of the sea that is applied to commercial ship movements, it is crucial that the U.S. be present for debates over amendments to the treaty. LOS regulations apply to the movements of commercial ships that carry over ninety-five percent of U.S. foreign commerce. And LOS establishes the basis for discussions on environmental protections in the international maritime world. Several countries have noted that LOS still does not adequately address environmental issues and are publicly saying that it should be amended to accommodate the new awareness of coastal needs regarding ships in innocent passage as well as those bearing for specific ports. It is very important for the U.S. to be at the table as these discussions begin. While there is not a specific request yet for LOS review, it is clearly on the horizon and the U.S. would be well served to be in a position of major influence on the debate.
Joining LOS Sends A Positive Message About American Principles
The U.S. is a nation that values responsibility and cooperation. Joining LOS tells the 152 countries that have already joined LOS, including all of our allies, that we are committed partners in protecting the planet and its people.
What U.S. Officials Are Saying About LOS
President George W. Bush: "I urge the Senate to act favorably on U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea during this session of Congress. Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed forces worldwide. It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “The administration supports early Senate action on the Convention.”
Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard: "The convention greatly enhances our ability to protect the American public as well as our efforts to protect and manage fishery resources and to protect the marine environment. From the Coast Guard's perspective, we can best maintain a public order of the oceans through a universally accepted law of the sea treaty that preserves and promotes critical U.S. national interests."
General Richard Myers, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “The Convention remains a top national security priority…It supports efforts in the War on Terrorism by providing much-needed stability and operational maneuver space, codifying essential navigational and overflight freedoms.” (2004)
Admiral Vern Clark, former Chief of Naval Operations: “The Convention supports U.S. efforts in the war on terrorism…while leaving unaffected intelligence collection activities. Further threats will likely emerge in places and ways that are not yet known. For these and other as yet unknown operational challenges, we must be able to take maximum advantage of the established navigational rights codified in the Law of the Sea Convention to get us to the fight rapidly.”
Senator Richard Lugar, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (R-IN): "The Senate this year has an opportunity to plug a large hole in our national security structure by approving the Law of the Sea treaty. I have urged President Bush and my colleagues in the Senate to act soon before election year politics or a crowded Senate schedule once again scuttles the chances for this vital international agreement, which has for years been stalled in unnecessary controversy....However, ideological posturing and flat-out misrepresentations by a handful of amateur admirals have sought to cast a shadow over the treaty by suggesting that we are turning over our sovereignty to the United Nations. Their criticisms simply don't hold water." (2007)
“Opponents seem to think that if the U.S. declines to ratify the Law of the Sea, it will evaporate into the ocean mists…Unlike some treaties…where U.S. non-participation renders the treaty irrelevant or inoperable, the Law of the Sea will continue to form the basis of maritime law regardless of whether or not the U.S. is a party…My message…is that it is irresponsible for us to wait to ratify the Law of the Sea until we feel the negative consequences of our absence from the Convention. The Senate should ratify the Law of the Sea Convention now in the interest of U.S. national security, the U.S. economy and the American people.” (2005)
Ambassador John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: “The administration has submitted the Law of the Sea Treaty as one of its priorities, and I support that.” (2004)
Governor Sarah Palin, Alaska: "I want to put my administration on record in support of the convention as the predicate for asserting sovereign rights that will be of benefit to Alaska and the nation." (2007)
Other Supporters of LOS
American Chemistry Council
American Geological Institute
American Geophysical Institute
American Geophysical Union
American Petroleum Institute
American Sportfishing Association
Chamber of Shipping of America
International Association of Drilling Contractors
National Fisheries Institute
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Oceans Industries Association
U.S. Tuna Foundation
Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council
Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Vice Admiral Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations
Navy League of the United States
Naval Reserve Association
Environmental and Public Interest:
Better World Campaign
Center for International Environmental Law
Defenders of Wildlife
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Garden Club of America
Humane Society of the United States
IUCN/World Conservation Union
League of Conservation Voters
National Environmental Trust
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Nature Conservancy
Physicians for Social Responsibility
U.S. Public Interest Research Group
World Wildlife Fund
United Nations Association of the United States of America
President George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State Colin Powell
All living State Department Legal Advisors
Legal and Research:
American Bar Association
Council on Ocean Law
Joint Oceans Commission Initiative
Maritime Law Association of the United States
U.S. Arctic Research Commission
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy
For more information about the Law of the Sea Convention, please contact:
Don Kraus, CEO, firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 546-3950, x 103
Citizens for Global Solutions Brief on Myths and Facts about the Law of the Sea
2007 letter from National Security Advisor Steven Hadley to SFRC Chair Biden supporting Law of the Sea
Testimony of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on the Law of the Sea
Foreign Policy in Focus Commentary Time to Ratify the Law of the Sea by Don Kraus
Citizens for Global Solutions sign-on letter, placed in Roll Call, urging Sen. Frist to allow a vote on ratification, May 12, 2004.
Citizens for Global Solutions Law of the Sea Ad Running in Tennessee Newspapers
House Oceans Caucus letters to Senator Frist and Senator Daschle urging ratification, June 24, 2004.
Law of the Sea Convention: Should the U.S. Ratify? Brookings Institution, June 22, 2004 (PDF).
Navy League Presidential message calls Law of the Sea essential for U.S. Naval Power
Official treaty website - Contains treaty text, status.
Interview with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) from Citizens for Global Solutions Spring 2004 Newsletter
Senator Lugar's website on the treaty
Chatanooga Times Editorial urging Sen. Frist to call for vote on ratification (PDF)
|Senate Committee Hearings:
||Foreign Relations, October 21, 2003
||Environment & Public Works, March 23, 2004.
||Armed Forces, April 8, 2004
||Foreign Relations, September 27, 2007 with Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of Defense England, and Admiral Patrick Walsh - opening statements, tesitmony, and video available
||Foreign Relations, October 4, 2007 with Admiral Vern Clark, USN (Ret.), Mr. Bernard Oxman, Mr. Frank Gaffney, Mr. Fred Smith, Mr. Paul Kelly, Mr. Joseph Cox, and Mr. Douglas Burnett - opening statements, tesitmony, and video available
|Foreign Relations, testimony submitted for the record by Don Kraus, Citizens for Global Solutions (PDF)
Law of the Sea Links:
Why should America care?
American Society of International Law Resource Center
Center for Oceans Law and Policy
Senator Lugar's work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans
Center for American Progress Progress Report
Background on the LOS
Support the LOS with the World Wildlife Fund!
Blogs on the LOS
Open Left -
Taylor Marsh -
Down with Tyranny -
The Washington Note -
The UN Dispatch -
Last update October 29, 2007