Customary international law is no longer sufficient to protect U.S. interests
Opponents of UNCLOS claim that the United States should not become a party because the United States already enjoys the benefits of UNCLOS through customary law and, therefore, should not unnecessarily incur the treaty's burdens. However, this ignores the fact that customary law can change and can also be influenced by how parties to UNCLOS decide to interpret its provisions.
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The Convention guarantees rights of innocent passage through territorial seas, transit passage through straits and archipelagoes, and freedom of all vessels on the high seas. Seafaring vessels, such as container ships, crude oil tankers, and bulk carriers, carry over 95 percent of all goods imported to or exported from the United States. Guaranteeing their free movement is both an economic and a national security concern, as these ships transport the majority of this country’s oil and other crucial commodities and goods.
The Convention’s detractors argue that U.S. ships can rely on customary international law to ensure their mobility. But customary international law is not well- suited to the needs of business. By definition, it is hard to find and apply customary law because it does not exist in one place. Its rules can and will shift over time. Shipping companies benefit from a set of stable, written rules that they can easily reference during a dispute. The Law of the Sea Convention serves this function by codifying key navigational rights in a single, central authority.
The treaty would officially give U.S. fisherman priority over stocks adjacent to the American coast, and the U.S. Navy would continue to navigate the globe unimpeded. But the U.S., almost alone, has never ratified the treaty it sought and needed, despite the efforts of every President since, because the rule is so customary that it goes mostly unchallenged.
Those who oppose ratification believe that regardless of whether the U.S. is a part of it or not, the Treaty, in binding others, provides the ground rules the U.S. seeks generally and now needs in the Arctic. This is a delusion.
Without the U.S. ratification of the Treaty, which would greatly support its integrity, the agreed upon 200-mile zone deal is under great stress around the world. The South China Sea is a prime example where the 200-mile zone deal is threatened as China claims much more, and the Arctic Ocean will be another. The U.S. must be able to legitimately defend its interests; It could challenge the encroachment of others as a ratified member of the treaty.
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And this expression of the national interest has been the precise locus of the isolationist backlash against UNCLOS. Treaty opponents have been unable to mount a serious challenge to the underlying substantive policy goals in favor of ratification of the Convention by the United States. The ability of the U.S. Navy to project power, under its Freedom of Navigation (FON) program as part of UNCLOS,9 has received a lot of negative attention of late, as coastal states (especially archipelagic nations and those bordering strategic straits)10 have renewed attempts to limit access by constraining the doctrines of innocent and transit passage under UNCLOS. Treaty opponents have cleverly argued that there is no need for the U.S. to ratify UNCLOS because all of its FON provisions are already reflected in customary international law (CIL). The problem – as recognized by the Pentagon – is that CIL formulations for FON are largely derived from the state practice following the 1958 Geneva Conventions (to which the U.S. is a party).11 It is not a credible international legal position, however, to rely on CIL frozen-in-time nearly a half-century ago. In order for the U.S. to effectively object to improper impositions of navigation interferences by coastal states, there must be a baseline (both literally and figuratively)12 of state behavior – and that standard is UNCLOS.
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Customary international law cannot unequivocally guarantee that the same benefits the United States currently enjoys under UNCLOS can be secured for the indefinite future.194 By its very nature, customary international law is not always universally accepted and also may change over time based on State practice.194 Therefore, it is illogical to operate under the presumption that customary international law will always mirror UNCLOS. The only way to permanently retain these rights, such that they are always at the disposal of the US, is to solidify them through treaty law.195 It is almost amusing that UNCLOS opponents, of. ten the most vocal critics of the uncertainty of customary international law, are simultaneously impelling the US military and US businesses to exclusively rely on it to protect their essential interests.196
Continuing to rely on an idealistic conception of customary international law for asserting maritime navigational rights and for exploiting deep sea-bed resources, as opposed to deriving them from UNCLOS, undermines American national security objectives and deprives the US Navy of an essential tool needed for resolving disputes peacefully. Such ethnocentric derogation towards UNCLOS will inevitably expose the Navy to increased risks of military conflict.197
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Each year the United States challenges dozens of states for asserting legal rights that impede freedom of the seas. Iran, North Korea, and China have all challenged the U.S. navy’s free passage through their EEZ. By codifying the right to pass freely through the exclusive economic zone of foreign states without restrictions on cargo or formation, the Law of the Sea strengthens America’s ability to project power.
But these rights are already recognized as customary international law. What does the Convention add? For one, it makes these rights stronger. Written treaties are perceived as more powerful than customary laws. By signing the Convention, the United States gives added weight and stability to customary rights, and pushes recalcitrant states to respect navigational freedoms.
More importantly, the Convention creates a forum to change navigational rights. It is possible, though unlikely, that future deliberations under the Convention might create rules that undermine freedom of navigation. If the United States fails to ratify the Convention, it will lose the opportunity to defend these rights. The problem is not that other states can stop the U.S. Navy from sailing where they want to sail. The problem is that they can raise the costs of doing so. If a nation decides to forbid U.S. ships their legal right to pass, America could use force to assert our right. But, realistically, it will be more likely to seek legal remedy. Signing the Convention lowers the cost of projecting power.
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UNCLOS opponents are correct on at least one point. The customary international law of the sea – at least as generally understood today – is consistent with U.S. national security interests. The U.S. government has said as much.15 However, in relying on the apparent harmony between UNCLOS and customary law as rationale for the U.S. to remain outside the treaty, opponents have failed to address a critical question: What if UNCLOS or customary law changes? Is it possible that today’s favorable legal environment could evolve adversely to U.S. interests?
The question is more than speculative. Through the years, a variety of nations have advanced legal theories inconsistent with critical U.S. ocean policy interests.16 Historically, these nations have lacked the will or ability to affect meaningful change in the international law of the sea. Today, however, this dynamic is changing.
Consider, for example, U.S. military operations in the off-shore area known as the EEZ, as codified by UNCLOS, comprising the waters beyond a nation’s territorial sea extending a maximum of 200 nautical miles from the coast.17 For years, the U.S. has consistently maintained the right under customary international law to conduct military activities in coastal state EEZs.18 Over the past decade, however, the People’s Republic of China has initiated confrontations with U.S. ships and aircraft operating in the Chinese-claimed EEZ and its associated airspace. The Chinese have boldly rejected long-standing U.S. positions on customary international law and also challenged conventional interpretations of critical UNCLOS provisions.
Putting aside for now the potential consequences of blurring the distinction between broadly ratified convention regimes and customary law for other subject areas of concern (e.g., the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute for the ICC), one might reasonably ask what response such a position might invite from other states that are now parties to the LOSC. Could they too circumvent the LOSC’s ban on reservations and avoid its compulsory dispute settlement provisions by renouncing the LOSC in favor of customary law? Even if empirically sound, the argument that nothing is to be gained by the United States in ratifying the LOSC, because all of the best parts either codified existing customary law when the Convention was opened for signature or later (i.e., between 1982 and 1994, when it entered into force) ripened into customary law, must be tested against the fallacy of composition. If that is true for the U.S., wouldn’t it also be true for the 160+ nations that are already parties to the LOSC? In short, do regimes founded on rules of customary law better serve the national and shared interests than those founded on treaties?
The common understanding of the fallacy of composition is that what might be true for the one is not necessarily true for the many. If one person in a crowd stands on tiptoes to see better he might be better off, but if everyone does it no one is better off. The economist John Maynard Keynes referred to the analogous “paradox of thrift,” by which he meant that if one person saves a substantial portion of her earnings she may be better off, but if everyone saved as much it could lead to a recession.
The Convention reduces, but doesn’t wholly eliminate, the indeterminacy inherent in customary law. The Convention also provides greater stability and predictability. Here it should be noted that the LOS Convention’s articles can only be amended through an elaborate process that, by design, provides the kind of stability the U.S. has long sought in the maritime domain. By contrast, customary law rules evolve by the practice of nations asserting, acceding to or persistently objecting to new norms, thus introducing unwelcome uncertainty into the nation’s maritime affairs. Moreover, as Edwin Williamson, President George H.W. Bush’s State Department Legal Advisor noted, the history of customary international law “reflects a steady deterioration of the freedom of the seas to the detriment of the essential rights of maritime nations, such as the U.S.”
Those who believe the costs of ratification outweigh the benefits, because most of the benefits are already provided by customary law, might want to consider the global state of affairs that would unfold if the 160+ nations that are already a party to the Convention—including the critical straits states—chose to follow the U.S. lead and eschew adherence to a meticulously drafted convention in favor of malleable customary law rules. While the Convention’s 320 articles and 9 annexes are not always a model of precision, one can certainly question whether the Convention ambiguities the opponents point to are any clearer under the corresponding customary law and whether rule stability is better served by a conventional regime or the practice of 160+ states.
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There is at least a germ of truth in this argument. The United States and its maritime activities are functioning reasonably well under the customary regime of the law of the sea. Most of the Convention is indeed a codification of customary international law. President Reagan's 1982 statements acknowledged this and pledged that the United States would abide by its rules.41 But customary law does not provide the precision and detail of a written document. It may establish a principle, but its content may remain imprecise, subject to a range of interpretations. With respect to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), for example, it is generally conceded today that the principle of the zone has become a part of customary international law. But what about its content? The details are contained in a set of articles codifying a series of compromises worked out in meticulous detail in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Convention. The rules for determining the allowable catch of the living resources of the EEZ, the determination of the coastal State's capacity to harvest them, the determination of the allowable catch by other States and the rules governing the coastal State's establishing of terms and conditions for foreign fishermen in their EEZs are laid out in detail.42
Customary rules are fuzzy around the edges and may not be recognized as binding by an opposing State. The "jurisdiction creep," which continued after the 1958 and 1960 First and Second UN Conferences on the Law of the Sea, illustrated the futility of relying on customary law to protect our vital security interests. Only a written document can provide the certainty and stability required by our governmental agencies and private maritime enterprises. And in any dispute with a foreign State to secure its compliance with the rules set forth in the Convention, arguments based on a written agreement rather than an asserted principle of customary international law would be much more effective.