Dispute resolution mechanisms in UNCLOS are not a reason to reject the treaty
The costs associated with the dispute resolution provisions in UNCLOS are similar to those the United States is already subject to under the principles of universal jurisdiction and territoriality and numerous other agreements the U.S. has already ratified. Furthermore, the Convention provides the United States with an escape from mandatory dispute resolution which the U.S. has already invoked in its signing statements to ensure that the U.S. military will not be threatened by UNCLOS tribunals.
There is no doubt that external dispute resolution infringes upon U.S. sovereignty and it is therefore not surprising that staunch advocates of sovereignty steadfastly oppose the Convention, in part due to its dispute resolution mechanisms. However, the costs associated with the Convention’s dispute resolution provision are similar to those the United States is already subject to under principles of universal jurisdiction and territoriality. Furthermore, the Convention provides the United States with an escape from mandatory dispute resolution. In light of this, arguments against ratification of the Convention based upon sovereignty rooted in the dispute resolution mechanisms are outweighed by the benefits the Convention offers to the United States.91
The role of the Law of the Sea Tribunal is to resolve disputes over the Convention. The Convention mandates that the Tribunal resolve all disputes, except those involving military activities. Opponents of the Convention argue that the tribunal could dispute U.S. designations of certain activities as military, forcing the U.S. to limit military operations. Some even claim American “citizens could be dragged before politically motivated foreign jurists.”18
Professor John Norton Moore, the leading U.S. expert on the law of the sea, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the chances of the Tribunal undermining U.S. military operations was comparable to that of a meteorite striking the capitol building.19 Still, administration officials have taken precautions. Upon joining the Convention, the United States would submit a declaration stipulating that it is acceding on the condition that states themselves have the authority to decide whether activities are military.20 Opponents think that even this precaution leaves a chance of the Tribunal harassing the U.S. military.
As a party to the Convention, however, the United States can nominate the judges to sit on the tribunal, rendering this wildly remote possibility even more unlikely. If the United States does not ratify the Convention, it has no control over the decisions the Tribunal reaches. The Tribunal will never have power over the U.S. military, but its decisions will form precedents that will help resolve future maritime disputes. Those precedents would affect U.S. interests.
[MYTH] The Convention mandates another tribunal to adjudicate disputes.
- The Convention established the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. However, Parties are free to choose other methods of dispute settlement. The United States would choose two forms of arbitration rather than the Tribunal.
- The United States would be subject to the Sea-bed Disputes Chamber, should deep seabed mining ever take place under the regime established by the Convention. The proposed Resolution of Advice and Consent makes clear that the Sea-bed Disputes Chamber’s decisions “shall be enforceable in the territory of the United States only in accordance with procedures established by implementing legislation and that such procedures shall be subject to such legal and factual review as is constitutionally required and without precedential effect in any court of the United States.” The Chamber’s authority extends only to disputes involving the mining of minerals from the deep seabed; no other activities, including operations on the surface of the oceans, are subject to it.
The presence of a clause providing binding arbitration should not be viewed as a limitation on U.S. sovereignty. The United States retains, as do all countries ratifying UNCLOS, the right to resolve conflicts through diplomatic means. The arbitration provision provides further means for countries to resolve disputes. In essence, it provides additional rights and capabilities to the states that would not normally exist. As such, it serves as an extended means of enforcing sovereignty when diplomatic solutions fail. Therefore, arbitration is not a limit on the sovereignty of states, but rather a guardian of state sovereignty.
While the ITLOS decision may indeed be cheered in naval circles for its ringing affirmation of the sovereign immunity of warships (possibly also for military aircraft, although they are not defined in the LOS Convention, nor is their sovereign immunity addressed), it also serves as a reminder of the awkward position of the U.S. as a non-party to the LOS Convention (the Convention has been pending before the senate since 1994, but the senate has yet to give its advice and consent to accession). Accordingly, should a similar incident occur involving a U.S. Navy or Coast Guard warship, the U.S. would not be able to apply to the ITLOS for the vessel’s release. Should the U.S. become a party to the LOS Convention, it should also take note of the fact that Argentina shrewdly amended its article 298 declaration on October 26th (four days before instituting its first legal action under Annex VII of the LOS Convention) to remove its early rejection of the LOS Convention’s compulsory dispute settlement procedures with respect to “military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in noncommercial service.” (¶ 34). In presenting the Convention to the senate in 1994, the Clinton administration recommended that the U.S. exempt military activities from the Convention’s compulsory dispute settlement procedures. Proposed declarations by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2004 and 2007 adopted that position. This case demonstrates at least one potential drawback to such exemptions.
We would do well to remember the original justifications for including the third-party dispute settlement provisions in the Convention. These justifications - which U.S. officials articulated and supported during UNCLOS III - include promoting certainty, predictability, and stability, with respect to rules that greatly benefit the United States.105 These dispute settlement provisions can help deter illegal behavior, as well as promote the peaceful settlement of disputes. Domestic enforcement of Convention provisions can also serve this end. At the most fundamental level, the Convention furthers the rule of law in the world - the values of using agreed-upon rules and procedures to resist unilateral assertions of jurisdiction or sovereign control, resolving differences even-handedly according to established rules, and providing stable expectations for international actors. Giving full effect to provisions for third-party dispute settlement at the international and national levels would help further these values.