The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea: Now is the time to join
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From an economic perspective, the United States emerges a clear winner under the convention’s provisions on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the continental shelf, due to its lengthy coastline and island possessions that border on several particularly productive ocean areas such as the Bering Sea. The United States has the largest and richest EEZ in the world. Also, our extended continental shelf has enormous potential due to oil and gas reserves, particularly in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas west and north of Alaska.
Discoveries by the crew aboard the USCG icebreaker Healy reveal that the U.S. continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is much more extensive than originally thought. Nevertheless, only by becoming party to the convention and participating in its processes can the United States obtain secure title to these vast resources, adding an area twice the size of the Louisiana Purchase (some 290,000 square miles) for U.S. sovereign resource exploitation.
Despite claims from critics of the convention that the United States could and should develop its continental shelf resources beyond 200 miles without becoming a party to UNCLOS, it stands to reason that any oil, gas, or mining company would want the legal certainty of the convention before investing billions of dollars to develop an offshore feld, no matter how rich it might be. In addition, the convention’s deep seabed mining provisions, as amended in 1994, would permit and encourage American businesses to pursue free-market-oriented approaches to deep ocean mining, including in the Arctic Ocean.
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Another key mission of the Coast Guard is to promote safe and secure international trade. The convention promotes freedom of navigation and overfight, by which international shipping and transportation fuel and supply the global economy. Some 90 percent of global trade tonnage, totaling more than $6 trillion in value including oil, iron ore, coal, grain, and other commodities, building materials, and manufactured goods, are transported by sea every year.7
Currently, little international trade travels through the Arctic, but this is changing and will continue to increase in the decades ahead as the ice cover continues to recede and marine transportation technology advances. Moreover, there is considerable destinational shipping even now, such as to bring critical supplies to the North Slope and Alaskan coastal villages, and to remove vast amounts of minerals from the treasure trove in the Brooks Range in northwestern Alaska.
By guaranteeing merchant vessels the right to navigate through international straights, archipelagic waters, and coastal waters, the provisions of the convention promote dynamic international trade. Free navigation reduces costs and eliminates delays that would occur if coastal states were able to impose various restrictions on navigational rights.
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The Coast Guard represents the United States at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the specialized body through which international standards for ship safety, security, and environmental protection are developed and adopted. These standards are negotiated and implemented under the Law of Sea Convention’s framework.
Consequently, we are becoming increasingly challenged in some of these negotiations because we are not a party to that framework. Moreover, the convention encourages international cooperation to enhance the safety and security of all ocean-going ships. The IMO is developing a mandatory Polar Code for Arctic shipping, and the Coast Guard is playing a key role in that effort.8
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Our non-party status is an obstacle that we must overcome in developing virtually any new multilateral maritime instrument. For example, the United States has long played a key role in the IMO to promote maritime safety and effciency and to protect the marine environment in the Arctic, but our leadership position is undermined by our current “outsider” status.
The United States has no “seat at the table” in matters concerning the convention, nor does it have a judge on the Law of the Sea Tribunal, or a decision maker or staff expert on the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that convenes to review and approve claims to extended continental shelves. Moreover, despite the fact that the 1994 Part XI Implementation Agreement guarantees the United States a permanent seat on the International Seabed Authority and an effective veto on all key decisions of that body, as a nonparty, we simply cannot play that critical role. Without joining the convention, we have no means to formally represent our signifcant maritime interests as a global power, and guide the discussion interpret- ing and developing the law of the sea in the Arctic.