Ratification of UNCLOS would expose U.S. to broad liability for environmental damage in international courts
By ratifying UNCLOS, the U.S. would be exposed to climate change lawsuits and other environmental actions brought against it by other members of the convention and the economic and political ramifications of such lawsuits could be dire.
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The environment is another issue of interest. University of Miami law professor Bernard H. Oxman, a long-time LOST advocate, argues that, “The Convention is one of the rare treaties to articulate a basic environmental norm in unqualified form.”19 There is nothing intrinsically wrong with articulating environmental norms—if they are justified, are qualified to account for competing interests, and are in accordance with each participant country’s governing institutions. But that is unlikely to emerge from a highly political process like the LOST negotiations.
Indeed, the Treaty risks endorsing some very bad environmental policy approaches. For example, South African Ambassador Sandile Nogxina, speaking on behalf of the African Group to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the LOST system, declared that, “The concept of sustainable development is a principle which the African group embraces.”20 At the same ceremony, South Korea’s Jung Hai-ung, representing the Asian group, opined “that the precautionary approach set out in Agenda 21, chapter 17, should be applied to the seabed activities.”21 The Netherlands formally pushed the Council “to apply a precautionary approach to seabed exploration.”22
All of these terms incorporate much larger political agendas. Biasing the process against development globally would have profound impacts on all peoples, and especially those in the poorest lands who most need the results of economic growth, international investment and trade, and globalization. Serious application of the precautionary principle would halt economic development, since it is impossible to prove a negative— that a new process or technology involves no risk. Trade-offs are inherent to any economic endeavor, with a thoughtful balancing of potential costs and benefits.
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Finally, the LOST may encourage the UN to venture into unexplored territory. The UN’s Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea boldly announced that the LOST “is not . . . a static instrument, but rather a dynamic and evolving body of law that must be vigorously safeguarded and its implementation aggressively advanced.”69 If international jurists exhibit the same creativity as shown by some judges domes- tically, the LOST might prove to be dangerously dynamic.
In 2001 Douglas Stevenson, representing the Seamen’s Church Institute, an advocacy group for mariners, complained about “trends that erode traditional seafarers’ rights,” such as that to medical care, as well as to protection from abandonment by insolvent and irresponsible ship owners. Stevenson explained, “When mariners’ health, safety or welfare is in jeopardy, we look to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to protect them.”70 There are obviously real and tragic abuses of seamen, but what the “international community” should do as part of the LOST about such issues is not obvious. Washington might find itself facing unexpected obligations if it signs on.
Although LOST focuses on the high seas, it includes language covering domestic pollution. The provisions are surprisingly expansive, or “stunning in their breadth and depth,” as Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation observed in a new study. A decade ago Ireland relied on LOST to sue Great Britain over the commissioning of a mixed oxide plant because of the latter’s alleged impact on the Irish Sea. The plant had been approved not only by Britain, but also the European Union (EU). Ireland dropped the suit, but only because the EU sued Ireland for not filing its case in the European Court of Justice.
Many environmentalists believe that LOST could be used against the U.S. in the same way. A few years ago an environmental activist mistakenly sent me an email after our debate on the treaty. He acknowledged that it might be difficult to convince Americans that the treaty would not similarly bind America when the World Wildlife Federation and Citizens for Global Solutions were promoting LOST by claiming that the convention would stop Russia from polluting the Arctic. He worried that this inconsistency suggested that the treaty was in fact “some kind of green Trojan Horse.”
It is. Groves noted that “Some environmental activist groups have already demonstrated a propensity for supporting, participating in, and in some cases actually filing climate change lawsuits against U.S. targets, as well as taking other legal actions relating to the marine environment in U.S. courts and international forums.”
Two decades ago environmental lawyers Durwood Zaelke and James Cameron wrote about the possibility of low-lying islands suing industrialized states over rising sea levels. Unfortunately, the prospect of international lawsuits is more than the gleam of an academic’s eye.
The Pacific island state of Palau announced last September that it would seek a ruling from the International Court of Justice barring nations from allowing emissions from their territory to cause climate change affecting other countries. Palau indicated that it would rely on LOST as well as the Kyoto Protocol. A decade ago Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu, also Pacific islands, threatened to sue under LOST, though as yet have not filed. Groves suggested that mountainous nations could similarly sue over shrinking glaciers. One could imagine other states claiming damages based on drought, desertification, or other alleged consequences of global warming.
The issue of climate change is extraordinarily complex. The best evidence is that the planet is warming, but the role of human activity and impact on the environment are far less certain and remain highly controverted. Nor is it possible to demonstrate causation between any particular emission and any particular consequence. There may be good political reasons to mitigate the distress of island countries, but such matters belong in international negotiations, not international courts.