Maritime Interdiction Operations
[ Page 121-122 ]
Nevertheless, opponents of UNCLOS find that United States accession to the treaty would directly contradict the goals of PSI.31 Specifically, opponents assert that if the United States does not become a party to the Convention, it will be free from any constraints in relation to ocean law, and thus, better suited to pursue the goals of PSI.32 This argument, however, is weakened by the fact that the United States is already a party to the 1958 Convention on the Law of the Sea, subjecting it to many of the same provisions articulated in the current iteration of UNCLOS.33 While the 1982 Convention modified many elements of the 1958 Convention, several key provisions remained in place, including many governing activities in territorial seas, continguous zones, and the high seas. Additionally, because UNCLOS is largely rooted in customary law, opponents of UNCLOS assert that the United States is already subject to many of its provisions implicitly.34 In the absence of a treaty, the United States must rely on and abide by customary law, which is defined by the pattern and practice of states. Since so many nations are already a party to UNCLOS, their practices largely influence the body of customary law on which the United States must rely if it does not ratify UNCLOS.
"National Security Implications in the Global War on Terrorism of the United States Accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
." Dartmouth Law Journal
. Vol. 7, No. 2 (2009): 117-131. [ More (9 quotes) ]
[ Page 121 ]
[MYTH]: As a nonparty, the United States is allowed to search any ship that enters our exclusive economic zone to determine whether it could harm the United States or pollute the marine environment. Under the Convention, the U.S. Coast Guard or others would not be able to search any ship until the United Nations is notified and approves the right to search the ship.18
This also is not correct. Under applicable treaty law—the 1958 conventions on the law of the sea—as well as customary international law, no nation has the right arbitrarily to search any ship that enters its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to determine whether it could harm that nation or pollute its marine environment. Nor would the United States want countries to have such a blanket “right,” because it would fundamentally undermine freedom of navigation, which benefits the United States more than any other nation. Thus, the descriptions of both the status quo and the Convention’s provisions are incorrect. It makes no change in our existing ability or authority to search ships entering the American EEZ with regard to security or protection of the environment. One final and very important point is that under the Convention the UN has absolutely no role in U.S. military operations, including a decision as to when and where a foreign ship may be boarded.
[ Page 4 ]
Terrorists have obvious reasons to take their operations out to sea. An attack on an oil tanker, for example, could do vast environmental damage and have a sizable impact on international oil markets. Seaborne shipping may be used to transport missiles and other weapons components not easily sneaked through airports. Currently, the United States does not claim the right to stop any and all ships on the high seas, merely on general suspicion. Since 2004, the United States has encouraged other nations, under the American-led Security Proliferation Initiative (SPI), to sign agreements authorizing American naval patrols to inspect merchant ships flying their flags when there is reason to fear the ships are engaged in illicit activities. While more than half the ships engaged in international commerce are covered by these agreements, many are not. American policy implicitly acknowledges that stopping other ships on the high seas would usually be improper. But special circumstances might justify exceptional measures.
[ Page 4-5 ]
UNCLOS III provides that, if a ship or its crew are seized on the high seas, the flag state can appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany, for a prompt decision on the legality of the seizure.3 The treaty allows states to opt for other forms of arbitration on other disputes, but other forms of arbitration require all nations involved to agree on a specific panel of arbitrators. The only important category of dispute where one party can force another to answer before ITLOS is when a ship has been detained on the high seas and the complaining party seeks its immediate release.
Seizing a ship on the high seas without the consent of its home government would inevitably trigger a diplomatic confrontation. But in the right circumstances, the United States or its allies might feel obliged to act first and try to handle the diplomatic protests later. If intelligence gives reasonably firm indications of an imminent terror attack to be launched from a particular ship, the U.S. could insist on intervening, claiming a right of self-defense that supersedes the general “rules of the road” at sea. Alternatively, the United States might claim that a ship operated by terrorists was so closely analogous to a pirate ship that intervention could be justified under the UNCLOS exemption for piracy. In still another variant, the United States might interpret a bilateral agreement with the flag state as covering a particular intervention, while the flag state insisted on a different interpretation. In any of these cases, the flag state would likely sit on the sidelines while the ship’s operators pursued a claim on their own initiative, “on behalf of the flag State,” as UNCLOS allows.4 It is easy to imagine situations in which U.S. intervention might trigger a complaint to ITLOS. It is hard to imagine situations in which ITLOS would be other than a complicating factor in ensuing U.S. diplomacy toward the flag state.
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Similarly, counter-proliferation efforts at sea are hindered by UNCLOS Article 92, which provides that “ships sail under the flag of one state only and, save in exceptional cases expressly provided for in international treaties or in this Convention, shall be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction on the high seas.” That means that a warship must have the consent of the flag state or the master to board and search a foreign flag vessel encountered seaward of the territorial sea of another nation. The enforcement regime established in both UNSCRs 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009), which ban most arms transfers to and from North Korea, is based on exclusive flag state jurisdiction. Although UNSCR 1874 contains an enhanced maritime cargo inspection regime, it is still dependent on flag state consent (Operative Paragraph 12). UNSCRs 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2006) and 1803 (2008), which impose a similar ban on material related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, are likewise based on flag state jurisdiction. Interdiction efforts on the high seas under other non-proliferation initiatives, like the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA)19 adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)20 announced by President Bush in March 2003 to combat the growing threat of WMD proliferation, also suffer from the same weakness – they are based on flag state consent. It is highly unlikely that Iran or North Korea will give consent to a foreign warship to board one of its vessels at sea. In short, in could be argued that UNCLOS allows North Korea and Iran to transport WMD-related materials with impunity, hiding behind the concept of exclu- sive flag state jurisdiction on the high seas.
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The most absurd argument made against the Convention is the notion that it would hinder U.S. efforts to interdict shipments of materials used for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles used to deliver them. The opposite is true. Signing the Convention helps stop proliferation.
Opponents contend that because the Convention protects freedom of the seas and freedom of already passage in territorial waters, signing would prohibit the U.S. Navy from stopping suspect shipments.12￼ This argument is based on a misunderstanding of both international law and America’s current nonproliferation efforts. The Convention offers states limited reasons for violating a ship’s freedom of the seas or right of innocent passage, and these reasons do not include carrying weapons. But these constraints on U.S. conduct already exist. Freedom of the seas and the right of innocent passage are codified in the treaties the United States passed in 1958 and subsequently recognized as customary international law. If the United States ever had a right to stop shipments without regard for freedom or the seas and the right of innocent passage, that right is long gone. The Convention imposes no new restrictions on the United States’ ability to interdict weapons shipments.
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[MYTH] As a nonparty, the U.S. is allowed to search any ship that enters our EEZ to determine whether it could harm the United States or pollute the marine environment. Under the Convention, the U.S. Coast Guard or others would not be able to search any ship until the United Nations is notified and approves the right to search the ship.
- Under the Convention, the UN has no role in deciding when and where a foreign ship may be boarded.
- Under applicable treaty law – the 1958 conventions on the law of the sea – as well as customary international law, no nation has the right to arbitrarily search any ship that enters its EEZ to determine whether it could harm that national or pollute its marine environment. Nor would we want countries to have such a blanket “right,” because it would fundamentally undermine the freedom of navigation that benefits the United States more than any other nation.
- Thus, the description of both the status quo and the Convention’s provisions is incorrect. The Convention makes no change in our existing ability or authority to search ships entering our EEZ with regard to security or protection of the environment.
Far from treating such seizures as remote hypotheticals, the Bush administration has invested considerable effort in a "Proliferation Security Initiative" (PSI) under which the United States has signed agreements with states that provide flags for most of the world's commercial shipping. These agreements may strengthen U.S. claims to intercept suspicious ships on the high seas, when flying with markings from the most common flagging states (such as Belize, Panama, and Libya, which have all signed such agreements). But the PSI agreements do not make clear when or whether ships or crews may be subject to long-term detention, and all the agreements stipulate that they do not supersede accepted standards of international law.
If we ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, even a PSI agreement with the flag state won't necessarily keep a dispute about the seizure from winding up before the Law of the Sea tribunal in Hamburg. That tribunal has asserted its right to hear claims for "prompt release" when filed by owners or operators of a ship, even when the nominal flag state takes no role in the proceedings. In past cases, ITLOS has ruled that ships cannot be detained, even when claimants refuse to supply full information about how the ship was acquired and on whose behalf. So while we have jealously reserved the right to detain terror suspects captured on land, we will, if we ratify this treaty, give up our right to decide when we can hold terror suspects seized at sea.
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Will accession hamper our ability to conduct maritime interdiction operations, outside the piracy realm? The answer here is no, as well. The U.S. conducts a wide range of maritime interdiction and related operations with our allies and partners, virtually all of whom are parties to the Convention. We rely on a broad range of legal authorities to conduct such operations, including the Convention, U.N. Security Council Resolutions, other treaties, port state control measures, flag state authorities, and if necessary, the inherent right of self-defense. Accession would strengthen our ability to conduct such operations by eliminating any question of our right to avail ourselves of the legal authorities contained in the Convention and by ensuring that we share the same international legal authorities as our partners and allies.
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The Coast Guard and other U.S. military forces already rely heavily on the elemental navigation freedoms codified in the Law of the Sea Convention. These protections allow the use of the world’s oceans to meet changing national security requirements. The Convention limits a nation’s territorial sea to no more than 12 nautical miles, beyond which all nations enjoy a high seas navigation regime that includes the freedom to engage in law enforcement activities. The Convention codifies the right to operate freely beyond a nation’s territorial sea and protects this right by limiting excessive maritime claims that often have the effect of creating maritime safe havens for drug traffickers and other criminals. In fiscal year 2003, the Coast Guard maritime interdiction operations occurring on international waters resulted in the seizure of over 135,000 pounds of cocaine, 56 vessels, and 207 arrests. In keeping with our aggressive international crime control strategy, most of these seizures took place on distant maritime transit routes far from our shores. However, during bi-lateral negotiations, several nations have, in the past, questioned our authority to contest certain of their excessive maritime claims simply because we have yet to ratify the treaty. Becoming a party to the Convention will enhance our ability to conduct such interdiction operations and to refute excessive maritime claims. Rather than only basing our law enforcement operations on customary international law, the United States should become a conspicuous and leading party to the treaty that codifies these important navigational rights.
If the United States ratifies the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the legality of maritime interdiction operations whether to stop terrorist attacks or prevent nuclear proliferation will, depending on the circumstances, be left to the decision of one of two international tribunals.
The U.S. conducts a wide range of maritime interdiction and related operations with its allies and partners, virtually all of whom are parties to the Convention. If the U.S. were to ratify UNCLOS, it would only strengthen its ability to conduct such operations by eliminating any question of its right to avail ourselves of the legal authorities contained in the Convention.
The U.S. relies on maritime interdiction operations for homeland security, counter-piracy, and crime control. However, during bi-lateral negotiations, several nations have, in the past, questioned our authority to contest certain of their excessive maritime claims simply because we have yet to ratify the treaty. Becoming a party to the Convention will enhance our ability to conduct such interdiction operations and to refute excessive maritime claims.