Why the U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty
Although the United States participated in the negotiations that culminated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994, it has not yet ratified the treaty. While it is true that the U.S. recognizes UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, failure to become a signatory to the Treaty is increasingly harmful to American political, military, and economic interests.
Ratifying UNCLOS would bolster American moral authority and legitimacy on international maritime issues at an important time. Doing so would eliminate one of Beijing’s justifications for rejecting the July 12 international Arbitral Tribunal ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea—that the U.S. is hypocritical since it is not a party to the treaty. Frankly, it also confounds America’s allies that the U.S. calls for all nations to uphold the values, principles, and rules-based order that has produced security, stability, and prosperity for all, but refuses to ratify UNCLOS. The Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, noted the cost to America’s reputation in a House Armed Services Committee hearing last February: “I think that in the 21st century our moral standing is affected by the fact that we are not a signatory to UNCLOS.”
Becoming a treaty member would help advance U.S. interests in promoting multilateral cooperation on a range of issues globally. For example, it would aid in building coalition partnerships in the Global War on Terrorism and the Proliferation Security Initiative, and help support multinational efforts to combat piracy.
Arguments against the United States becoming a party to UNCLOS are not persuasive given the evident and rising costs of remaining outside the treaty. Reservations based on the deep seabed mining regime, which was the basis for President Ronald Reagan’s rejection of the treaty in 1982, were addressed by the 1994 revisions made to UNCLOS during the Clinton Administration. Other objections are based on concerns that ratification would expose the U.S. to broad liability for environmental damage in international courts; obligate the U.S. to transfer technology; require the U.S. to transfer royalties to the International Seabed Authority and give the United Nations the ability to impose taxes on U.S. citizens; and damage U.S. national security by restricting the ability of the U.S. to conduct activities such as maritime interdiction operations and gathering maritime intelligence.
Treaties by their very nature impose some constraints as part of the process of establishing international norms and rules. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama backed the treaty and urged Senate ratification, to no avail. Supporters of UNCLOS ratification include a broad American constituency composed of the U.S. military as well as actors in the energy, shipping, fishing, shipbuilding, and communication industries, as well as environmental groups. The clear benefits of becoming a party to the treaty outweigh the potential costs. It’s well past time to leave the small group of countries that refuse to join treaty, which includes North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Venezuela, and side with the 167 countries that are UNCLOS state parties.
There is a strong economic, military, and strategic case to be made for U.S. ratification of UNCLOS. Economically, the U.S. would benefit by attaining new protections for its vital maritime industries while opening up new industries and vast amounts of terroritory. The military case is just as strong with the overwhelming consensus of military leaders advocating for ratification as a way to ensure the freedom of navigation rights the U.S. depends on. Finally, ratification of UNCLOS would help the U.S.