Recent ITLOS decision in dispute between Argentina and Ghana should make the U.S. question the wisdom of remaining outside the convention and protections of dispute resolution
While the ITLOS decision may indeed be cheered in naval circles for its ringing affirmation of the sovereign immunity of warships (possibly also for military aircraft, although they are not defined in the LOS Convention, nor is their sovereign immunity addressed), it also serves as a reminder of the awkward position of the U.S. as a non-party to the LOS Convention (the Convention has been pending before the senate since 1994, but the senate has yet to give its advice and consent to accession). Accordingly, should a similar incident occur involving a U.S. Navy or Coast Guard warship, the U.S. would not be able to apply to the ITLOS for the vessel’s release. Should the U.S. become a party to the LOS Convention, it should also take note of the fact that Argentina shrewdly amended its article 298 declaration on October 26th (four days before instituting its first legal action under Annex VII of the LOS Convention) to remove its early rejection of the LOS Convention’s compulsory dispute settlement procedures with respect to “military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in noncommercial service.” (¶ 34). In presenting the Convention to the senate in 1994, the Clinton administration recommended that the U.S. exempt military activities from the Convention’s compulsory dispute settlement procedures. Proposed declarations by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2004 and 2007 adopted that position. This case demonstrates at least one potential drawback to such exemptions.
The costs associated with the dispute resolution provisions in UNCLOS are similar to those the United States is already subject to under the principles of universal jurisdiction and territoriality and numerous other agreements the U.S. has already ratified. Furthermore, the Convention provides the United States with an escape from mandatory dispute resolution which the U.S. has already invoked in its signing statements to ensure that the U.S. military will not be threatened by UNCLOS tribunals.