The United States and the Law of the Sea Convention
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.
Opponents also contend that accession is basically unnecessary for the United States to enjoy the benefits of the Convention. On this view, we get the benefit of the rest of the world treating the Convention’s provisions as customary international law without having to sign up ourselves. And, the argument goes, if there are any deficiencies in our legal rights, the U.S. Navy can make it up through force or the threat of force. So why join the Convention and subject ourselves to, for example, third-party dispute settlement?
This argument misses some key points:
First, asserting customary international law does not secure all the benefits of the Convention for us. For example, as a non-party, we do not have access to the Continental Shelf Commission and cannot nominate nationals to sit on it.
Second, relying on customary law does not guarantee that even the benefits we do currently enjoy are secure over the long term. Customary law is not the most solid basis upon which to protect and assert U.S. national security and economic rights. It is not universally accepted and changes over time based on State practice. We therefore cannot assume that customary law will always continue to mirror the Convention, and we need to lock in the Convention’s rights as a matter of treaty law. As Admiral Mullen testified when he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations, “[it is too risky to continue relying upon unwritten customary international law as the primary legal basis to support U.S. military operations.” One irony of this debate is that some of the opponents of the Convention are the same people who most question the viability of customary international law.
Third, to obtain financing and insurance and avoid litigation risk, U.S. companies want the legal certainty that would be secured through the Convention’s procedures in order to engage in oil, gas, and mineral extraction on our extended continental shelf. So, while it may be true that the Navy will continue to exercise navigational rights with or without the Convention, U.S. companies are reluctant to begin costly exploration and extraction activities without the benefit of the Convention.
Fourth, military force is too blunt an instrument to protect our asserted customary international law rights, especially our economic rights. It is simply unrealistic and potentially dangerous to rely solely on the Navy to ultimately secure the benefits of the Convention. The Navy itself has made clear that treaty- based rights are one of the tools it needs in its arsenal.
A final focus of opponents’ criticisms is the Convention’s dispute settlement provisions. While reasonable people can differ over whether third- party dispute settlement is, on balance, a “pro” or a “con,” I believe that these particular provisions are useful, well-tailored, and in no event a reason to jettison the Convention. The United States affirmatively sought dispute settlement procedures in the Convention to encourage compliance and to promote the resolution of disputes by peaceful means. We sought and achieved procedures that are flexible in terms of forum. For example, the Convention allows a Party to choose arbitral tribunals and does not require any disputes to go to the International Court of Justice. Its procedures are also flexible, allowing a Party to choose to exclude certain types of disputes, such as those concerning military activities. In this regard, some have questioned whether it is up to the United States – or a tribunal – to determine what constitutes a U.S. “military activity” under the Convention. We propose to include a declaration in the Senate’s resolution of advice and consent making clear that each Party has the exclusive right to determine what constitutes its “military activity.” And I can assure you that there is no legal scenario under which we would be bound by a tribunal decision at odds with a U.S. determination of military activities.
Over the past year or so, some of the most interesting law of the sea issues for us have come from the Arctic, where climate change is creating the prospect for increased shipping, oil and gas activity, tourism, and fishing. As a result, the law of the sea has become more relevant than ever. I want to conclude with a few observations and some ideas about ways forward regarding the melting Arctic.
My first observation is that while some have expressed concern that the Arctic is a “lawless” region, this could not be further from the truth. For one, the law of the sea, as reflected in the Convention, provides an extensive legal framework for a host of issues relevant to the Arctic. It sets forth navigational rights and freedoms for commercial and military vessels and aircraft in various maritime areas. It addresses the sovereignty of the five Arctic coastal States – the U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway – by setting forth the limits of the territorial sea and the applicable rules. It addresses sovereign resource rights by setting forth the limits of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf and rules governing those areas. It provides the geological criteria relevant to establishing the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles – a topic of great interest these days as the Arctic coastal States seek to extend their respective shelves to the limits permissible under international law. For Parties to the Convention – that is, the four other coastal States – it sets forth a procedure for securing international recognition of those outer limits. International law also sets forth rules for resolving cases where the maritime claims of coastal nations overlap. And finally, the law of the sea provides rules regarding marine scientific research in the Arctic and sets out the respective rights and responsibilities among coastal States, flag States, and port States regarding protection of the marine environment.
As the nation with the world’s largest navy, an extensive coastline and a continental shelf with enormous oil and gas reserves, and substantial commercial shipping interests, the United States certainly has much more to gain than lose from joining the Law of the Sea Convention. In my view, it is most unfortunate that a small but vocal minority – armed with a series of flawed arguments – has imposed upon the United States a delay that is contrary to our interests. Nevertheless, I am convinced this will change and am confident that the United States Senate will approve the Convention in due course.
In the meantime, the United States will continue to abide by the Convention and work within its framework. Even as we remain outside the Convention, the Legal Adviser’s Office confronts law of the sea issues on a daily basis. For example, we work at the International Maritime Organization and in regional fora to protect the marine environment by elaborating rules for reducing vessel source pollution, ocean dumping, and other sources of marine pollution. We recently achieved U.S. ratification of a treaty – “MARPOL Annex VI” – aimed at limiting air pollution from ships and a protocol limiting land-based sources of marine pollution in the Caribbean Region. A global treaty on ocean dumping – the “London Protocol” -- awaits action by the full Senate. At home, we coordinate with the Department of Justice to ensure that prosecutions involving foreign flag vessels are consistent with the marine pollution chapter of the Convention, and we scrutinize legislative proposals from both the Executive Branch and the Congress to ensure that U.S. marine pollution jurisdiction is applied and enforced in accordance with law of the sea rules.
We also negotiate maritime boundary treaties with our neighbors in line with the provisions of the Convention. Most people think the United States has only two neighbors – Canada and Mexico – but by virtue of our island possessions, we actually have over thirty instances in which U.S. maritime claims overlap with those of another country. Less than half of them have been resolved. Some involve disagreements about how much effect to give to islands in determining a maritime boundary. In the case of the Beaufort Sea, Canada argues that the existing treaty establishing the land boundary between Alaska and Canada also determines the maritime boundary. Our office is also assisting a State Department-led Task Force to determine the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy has recently conducted several cruises in the Arctic Ocean, including one that mapped areas of the Chukchi Borderland where the U.S. shelf may extend more than 600 miles from shore.
U.S. and international efforts to combat terrorism and proliferation have also generated law-of-the-sea-related issues. Consistent with the Convention, we fashion shipboarding agreements to promote the maritime interdiction aspects of the Proliferation Security Initiative. And we bring law of the sea equities into the elaboration of treaties on suppression of criminal acts at sea. In fact, the U.S. Senate has just given its advice and consent to ratification of two protocols that supplement the convention that addresses suppression of unlawful acts at sea – the 2005 so-called “SUA Protocol” and the 2005 “Fixed Platforms” Protocol.