U.S. Policy and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
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Freedom of navigation is the main reason why the George W. Bush administration announced its support for U.S. accession shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.30 The administration likely finds that the Convention's navigational and national security benefits far outweigh any costs to the U.S. joining the Convention. Military security relates to self-defense, which the Convention pre- serves,31 and to port security, which the Convention facilitates by incorporating security requirements developed through the Inter- national Maritime Organization.32 The Convention also assures rights of navigation and overflight, including transit passage through strategic straits and archipelagic sea lanes passage,33 as well as the immunity of warships.34 The U.S. insisted on strengthening rights of navigation and overflight during the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea Conference (UNCLOS III), and in making them more objective with what appears in the 1958 Territorial Sea Convention.
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Why support the Convention now? Administration officials cite a "resurgence of creeping jurisdiction" by coastal states within their EEZs.36 This resurgence threatens Convention-based navigational rights, which are at least as important today as they were during the Cold War. Alternative ways to respond to creeping coastal state jurisdiction are not satisfactory. If the U.S. continues to rely on assertions that customary international law establishes certain navigational rights, coastal states may increasingly counterclaim that emerging customary international law restricts such rights in coastal zones.37 Some coastal states may altogether deny that Convention-based navigational rights exist under customary international law. As Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Commit- tee, "some coastal states contend that the navigational and over- flight rights contained in the Convention are available only to those states that also accept the responsibilities set forth in the Convention by becoming parties to it."38 if it joined the Convention, the U.S. would likely have less need to rely on either its Freedom of Navigation Program39 or negotiating new bilateral agreements.40 The rules in the Convention clarify issues and narrow considerably the range of possible disagreements over navigational rights. Accepting the Convention will thus be less expensive-in terms of dollars, potential confrontations or loss of good will with coastal states, and U.S. concessions on other fronts-than continuing to stand outside it.
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Several more forceful responses to the critics of the Convention's obligatory dispute settlement provisions are in order. First, the U.S. has already accepted the Convention's dispute settlement system with respect to certain significant categories of disputes (by ratifying the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement, which incorporates the Convention's dispute settlement provisions).54 Second, one can make a strong case that third-party dispute settlement has led to decisions that strengthen the Convention's rules and will lead to many more. For example, in its merits decision in the Saiga case, the ITLOS reinforced the concept of the EEZ as a zone of limited coastal state jurisdiction, which extends neither to customs matters nor generally to all matters affecting a coastal state's "public interest."55 Third, the U.S. itself might find the Convention's dispute settlement system useful. For instance, arbitration could be threatened or pursued in order to oppose and publicly expose other states' illegal straight baseline claims.56 The Convention's dispute settlement provisions can help prevent the compromises embodied in the Convention from unraveling.
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The ISA, the institutional component that led the Reagan administration not to support the Convention in 1982, has remained a obstacle for a few vocal critics of the Convention in America. Although the ISA is the only new body created by the Convention that is explicitly authorized to make policy, its mandate is narrow, related to steps furthering security of tenure for those seeking to explore for minerals or mine on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The Part XI Implementation Agreement, which is now read together with the Convention to govern the ISA's operations, rectified all of the Reagan administration's objections to the original Part XI (the administration's only objections to the Convention). The objectionable provisions related to an asserted lack of guaranteed access for qualified private miners, the possibility of payments to national liberation movements, mandatory technology transfers, production limita- tions, and a review conference that could amend Part XI over the objection of the U.S. or other states. The George W. Bush administration has emphasized the 1994 changes with respect to these provisions. It has also emphasized 1994 changes concerning the U.S. role in how the ISA makes its decisions, changes that give the U.S. an effective veto over ISA decisions. Since its inception, the ISA has operated on a low budget and has confined its activities to its specified mandate, behavior that should reassure skeptics who fear an expensive, bloated international bureaucracy.