Consensus of experts advocate for U.S. ratification of UNCLOS
A broad, bipartisan consensus supports U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, and has consistently argued on its behalf for the past 30 years. This coalition includes high-level officials from the past six administrations and backing by all Presidents since Clinton. It also includes a range of senior defense officials including every Chief of Naval Operations. The Convention has also been strongly supported by every major ocean industry, including shipping, fishing, oil and natural gas, drilling contractors, ship builders, and telecommunications companies, and representatives of the oil and gas, shipping, and telecommunications industries testified in favor of the Convention before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
UNCLOS provides the overarching framework governing international ocean affairs. The Convention is one of the most wide-ranging, comprehensive international Conventions and, together with its associated agreements3, covers or touches on virtually all marine activities. UNCLOS has, moreover, achieved broad acceptance from the international community. At the time of writing the Convention boasted 164 parties, comprising 163 States plus the European Union. When it is recalled that there are 'only' 155 coastal States in the world, the near-comprehensive uptake of UNCLOS is underscored.
Indeed, despite being a non-party itself, the US nonetheless accepts that key aspects of UNCLOS, such as the maritime jurisdictional and boundary delimitation provisions, are declaratory of customary international law and conducts its policy accordingly.4 In terms of international law and international relations, US accession to the Convention would therefore consolidate and reinforce the oceans policy and practice pursued by successive administrations of both political persuasions in the US.
Despite opposition by a few members of Congress, UNCLOS ratification has widespread support in the military, diplomatic and intelligence communities. The Departments of Defense, State and National Intelligence have consistently advocated that the Senate should ratify the treaty.65 In fact, all of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have written the Senate letters seeking the Senate’s advice and consent.66 Moreover, in his last NSPD before leaving office, President George W. Bush explicitly sought UNCLOS’s ratification.67 At the end of 2007, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted to recommend ratification.68 The U.S. Senate’s vote is pending.
The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea — the instrument that created the overarching governance framework for nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and what lies above and beneath it — has been signed and ratified by 161 countries, but not by the United States. The convention and the 1994 agreement on its implementation have been in force for 18 years, yet the United States, a nation with over 12,000 miles of coastline and the dominant world maritime power by any measure, joins an embarrassing short list of holdouts that includes North Korea, Syria and Iran.
This is true despite the fact that a bipartisan coalition of American business, environmental and military leaders agree that it is in our national interests to formally become a state party to this lynchpin of ocean governance. Per our constitution, the Senate must give its “advice and consent” to treaties submitted by the president for its review. Of these currently in the queue, for national-security reasons, the Law of the Sea is one of the most urgent.
This is why the secretaries of Defense and State, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps all recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. should join. In fact, since 1994 – when President Clinton first submitted the treaty to the Senate for its consideration following the international community changing the document’s language to directly address President Ronald Reagan’s initial reservations – every president, every Marine Corps and Coast Guard commandant, and nearly all chiefs of naval operations have unequivocally supported it. Put simply, there is broad consensus from our nation’s military and political leadership that the United States should sign on.
The 1982 LOS Convention sets out a carefully-drafted balance between safety, security and stewardship in the maritime domain. It is not a perfect treaty (is there such a thing?), but on balance, it is a very good treaty for the United States. The audience need not take my word for that. The first recommendation to come out of the bipartisan blue ribbon U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, chaired by former chief of naval operations and secretary of energy James Watkins, was a recommendation that the United States accede to the 1982 Convention.13 Similarly, former secretary of defense and CIA director Leon Panetta supported accession in his capacity as chairman of the prestigious Pew Ocean Commission.14 Following a decade-long debate over the Convention's strengths and weaknesses, Canada-our Arctic neighbor and fellow member of NATO and the Arctic Council-ratified the Convention in 2003.15
Support for U.S. accession to the Convention is surprisingly broad14. Some of the architects of plans to scuttle the Convention treaty under the Reagan administration have now come around to support it because the more odious provisions were amended or eliminated since that time15 The Navy, Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State Department and the White House, support accession. These groups support accession despite the fact that they occasionally squabble over its implementation, largely due to the dual interest of the U.S. (e.g., the environmental protection mandate of the Coast Guard vs. the security mandate of the Navy has put these two forces at odds in the past16). Likewise, major resource extracting industries and their trade groups, who are often at odds with environmental groups over regulations, share a common interest with many of these groups in ratifying the Convention. Finally, the most authoritative body on U.S. ocean science and policy ever assembled, the Joint Ocean Commissions Initiative, chaired by retired Navy Admiral James Watkins and former Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, has indicated U.S. accession to the Convention as one of its highest priorities.
But don’t just take it from me. What’s far more important is that UNCLOS ratification is supported by:
- The current President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the heads of the U.S. Maritime Services: Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard
- All their living predecessors, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike26
On how many issues does one witness this sort of unanimity across parties, agencies, and time? These people are true experts: not just on theory, but on how things play out in policy practice. There is a compelling reason for their unanimity: U.S. UNCLOS ratification is a great idea whose time has more than come.
The debate over U.S. UNCLOS ratification is a familiar one. It focuses on whether it is better for the United States to be inside a flawed, sometimes troublesome international system where Washington can exert power to minimize the damage the organization can do, or to remain outside such an organization, unfettered by the agreements others are making. Since the Reagan administration, the United States has generally followed the latter approach, one favored by politically conservative factions.
The emerging Arctic-related issues challenge this prevailing approach, however. Being outside UNCLOS has reduced U.S. ability to influence debates that are increasingly relevant to the country's primary interests. In response, a powerful coalition of industries, environmentalists and hawkish foreign policy groups and the Bush administration have aligned in support of the treaty -- though not yet in a coordinated manner. Traditionally conservative political groups are coming to view the price of nonparticipation as growing in relation to the sacrifices of signing on. As a result, entrenched interests aligned against the treaty are shrinking, and the question increasingly appears to be one of when UNCLOS will be ratified, not whether.
Opposition in the United States to ratification of UNCLOS has largely been based on arguments relating to U.S. sovereignty and the power of international organizations. Libertarian and conservative groups have said the treaty would reduce U.S. ability to move its Navy in waters heretofore understood to be open, international waters. Others have pointed to the International Seabed Authority, alleging it is too powerful since under UNCLOS it has made the power to explore deep-sea minerals no longer simply a matter of determining who was there first with a capability to exploit the resources.
Voices against ratifying UNCLOS generally have been politically conservative. With the Arctic issues rising to the surface, core conservative constituencies -- business and foreign policy hawks -- see significant threats emanating from nonparticipation and clear benefits to participation.
As the Arctic issues proliferate, however, conservatives and the foreign policy establishment are beginning to view sitting on the sidelines as increasingly disadvantageous -- as is the military. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called U.S. ratification of the treaty "a top national security priority." With the military, conservative foreign policy establishment and business joining together in support of ratification, the remaining conservative voices cautioning against sacrificing sovereignty have become increasingly isolated.
Moreover, the Convention had the backing of the kind of coalition that normally augurs success in Washington. There was certainly no doubt about the military’s support. A so-called “24-star” letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff called on the Senate to approve the Convention. In addition, the Convention had the support of many high-level officials in the civilian agencies. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez all wrote strong letters urging the Senate to act. And, as a demonstration of high-level Administration commitment, both Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England testified in support of the Convention at a Senate hearing in September 2007. Moreover, several Reagan-era officials, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Ambassador Ken Adelman, argued publicly that President Reagan’s problems with the Convention had been fixed and that it was time for the United States to join. Finally, the Convention was also strongly supported by every major ocean industry, including shipping, fishing, oil and natural gas, drilling contractors, ship builders, and telecommunications companies, and representatives of the oil and gas, shipping, and telecommunications industries testified in favor of the Convention before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Maritime Law Association of the United States, joined fully by the American Bar Association, emphatically urges the Biden Administration and the Senate to take immediate action to ratify both the Rotterdam Rules and UNCLOS and allow the U.S. to best address current and future global maritime issues.[ More ]