Dispute resolution mechanisms in UNCLOS threaten U.S. national security
Mandatory dispute resolution mechanism could be used by states unsympathetic to the U.S. to curtail its military operations even though such operations are supposed to be exempt from the mechanism. This is because it is unclear by the terms of the treaty what activities will be defined as military.
The United States and other nations are free to resolve their maritime disputes in a number of ways outside of UNCLOS, including bilateral negotiations, fact-finding and conciliation commissions, and proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, to name a few.8 The United States may also submit a dispute by special agreement to the International Court of Justice, as it did in 1981 to resolve a dispute with Canada over maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Maine.
Bilateral negotiations, special agreements, arbitration, and conciliation commissions have in com- mon the fact that they are voluntary means of resolving maritime disputes. The United States may choose to engage in such voluntary pro- ceedings depending on whether the predicted outcome would advance its national interests. However, if the U.S. accedes to UNCLOS, it will be compelled to submit itself to legally binding dispute resolution whenever another member state brings a lawsuit against it.
Problem #4: Unnecessary Risks to National Security. Proponents of the Convention argue that it promotes U.S. security by codifying a variety of rights to navigate the world’s oceans that are valued by the Navy. While the Navy, quite appropriately, seeks the codification of these rights, it should be pointed out that a significant portion of these rights are already established by a series of four 1958 “Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea” and customary international practice.
On the other hand, the risks to national security posed by the Convention are often understated. For example, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy Mark T. Esper, who testified in favor of the Convention, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in an October 21, 2003, hearing that the mandatory dispute resolution mechanism could be used by states unsympathetic to the U.S. to curtail its military operations even though such operations are supposed to be exempt from the mechanism. This is because it is unclear by the terms of the treaty what activities will be defined as military. While the Bush Administration believes that it will be up to each State Party to determine for itself what activities are military, it is uncertain enough about the issue that it is recommending the U.S. submit a declaration reserving its right to determine which activities are military. Unfortunately, it is not at all certain that a declaration will suffice to protect vital U.S. national security interests. Other states may choose to accept or ignore the declaration, or a future administration may accept the jurisdiction of a tribunal and be surprised if precedent-setting decisions go against U.S. interests. While in the future the Navy may recommend that the U.S. reject a claim of jurisdiction for a tribunal, civilian authorities both inside and outside the Department of Defense may overrule the Navy. Amending the text of the treaty may be the only certain way to protect U.S. interests against overreaching by other states regarding the mandatory dispute resolution mechanism. This is my view, in part, because I am not aware of a precedent for such a mandatory dispute settlement mechanism that could extend to such sensitive areas.
The Law of the Sea Treaty’s compulsory dispute resolution requirements and procedures are particularly problematic when taken together with a number of obligations the accord entails that are at odds with our military practices and national interests. These include commitments that:
- Reserve the oceans exclusively for “peaceful purposes” (Article 88): The United States routinely uses the world’s oceans for military purposes, including waging war against our enemies.
- Require states to refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 301): As the world’s preeminent maritime nation, America must project power from the sea and does so with some regularity. Some would describe such power projection as contrary to “the territorial integrity or political independence” of states (most recently, for example, attacks from naval forces against the Taliban’s Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq).
- Proscribe the use of territorial waters to collect intelligence and conduct other operations (Article 19): For many decades, intelligence vital for American security has been collected on, below and above the oceans – including, in some cases, those considered to be “territorial waters.”
- Oblige submarines to travel on the surface and show their flags in territorial waters (Article 20). The effectiveness and perhaps the very survival of our submarines would be compromised were they to have to operate on the surface in close-in waters where they can only go with the greatest of stealth.
- Bar any maritime research except that conducted for peaceful purposes and require the coastal state’s permission for that performed in territorial waters (Article 240). Classified oceans research, including some conducted covertly, is indispensable to the U.S. Navy’s mission.
In statements in support of LOST, the United States military makes clear that it has no intention of ending such activities, and insists that it will not have to do so since “military activities” are exempted from the Treaty’s dispute resolution mechanisms. Unfortunately, this position both defies common sense and hard experience with international accords: These articles are wholly without effect if they do not apply to the military and it is predictable that America’s foes will use every opportunity afforded by LOST to ensure they do.
UNCLOS seems to provide protection against these concerns by stipulating that states may opt out of its compulsory arbitration requirements when disputes concern “military activities...by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service.”6 At its narrowest reading, this provision might mean only that ITLOS will avoid intervening in full-scale confrontations between opposing battle fleets—a situation that would create problems far beyond those of dispute resolution. At its broadest, this exemption might mean that any seizure could be excluded from ITLOS review, since seizures are never effectuated by unarmed commercial vessels, which would entirely negate the provision bestowing mandatory jurisdiction on ITLOS for seizures at sea. So which is it?
The only thing certain is that it will be up to ITLOS to decide how far it wants to intrude into U.S. naval strategy. The State Department has proposed ratification with an “understanding” that the military exemption will be read broadly. (Sec. 2, Par. 2 of ‘Text of Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification,” printed with Treaty Doc. 103-39 in Hearings on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Ot. 21, 2003, along with “Statement of William H.Taft, Legal Adviser to the Department of State) But UNCLOS itself stipulates that states may not attach “reservations” to their ratification.7 Again, it will be up to ITLOS to decide what significance, if any, should be accorded such unilateral U.S. “understandings.” And the court’s composition is not encouraging. As of September 2005, a clear majority of the court’s 21 judges were from states that cannot be supposed to be friendly to American naval action—including Russia, China, Brazil, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Cape Verde, Tunisia, Lebanon, Grenada, and Trinidad.