Why America Should Care About the Law of the Sea Treaty

by Don Kraus and Spencer P. Boyer

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is once again considering the international treaty known as the Law of the Sea Convention, and the stakes are high. Winning the ratification battle would begin to breach the walls of "Fortress America" -- that fear-driven construct that deprives the United States of the benefits of international law and institutions, while falsely claiming that our sovereignty is at risk if we engage globally. Joining the treaty would be an important step in tearing down this wall and putting the U.S. back on track towards responsible global leadership.

The treaty, which was adopted 25 years ago and has been in force since 1994, has 155 signatories and lays out rules of behavior for over two-thirds of the Earth's surface. Fortunately, there are benefits in this treaty for just about everyone -- including environmentalists, business associations, oil, shipping, and fishing companies, and the military - who all support ratification. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are largely in favor. Even President Bush, who has not exactly been a staunch supporter of an international rule of law, is on board.

Why is there such a perfect storm of convergent interests?

* The U.S. Navy and Air Force desperately need a strong legal foundation for their navigation and overflight rights, as well as for the Proliferation Security Initiative - their efforts to intercept illicit shipments of weapons material.

* The Coast Guard sees the treaty as a critical tool to enhance port security.

* Environmental organizations want the U.S. to join so it can strengthen global efforts to protect the marine ecosystem. They are working together with the U.S. oil and gas industry, which would gain exclusive access to exploit (or conserve, as our government sees fit) resources in an offshore zone bigger than the entire continental United States with ratification.

* Membership in the treaty would give U.S. firms the legal certainty to compete with foreign firms for certain marine resources.

Yet sadly the treaty has languished in the U.S. Senate since 1994, held up first by former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and then in 2004 by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), despite a unanimous, 19-0 affirmative vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With such support, what's the problem?

The convention's few isolated opponents see themselves as the guardians of Fortress America's inner sanctum. This is the crowd that falsely equates international law and organizations with the erosion of U.S. national security. Many of these same people said that we didn't need international support or cooperation before invading Iraq in 2003.

Unlike serving officers, these armchair admirals fail to recognize the need for any binding rules of the road regarding the world's oceans. They suggest that our overstretched military can be counted upon to protect U.S. ocean mining operations outside our territorial waters. They have no other ideas on how to protect threatened marine wildlife or manage pollution. And they offer no alternative to protect the military and commercial rights that the treaty explicitly guarantees to its member states.

That the Senate has not ratified a convention so overwhelmingly favorable to our interests remains a national disgrace, and one that has serious political implications. The Senate's inaction on the treaty gives rise to the notion that all multilateral treaties, no matter how important for U.S. interests, are dead on arrival. If you can't pass the Law of the Sea Convention, what chance would you have at passing agreements on climate change, human rights, or arms control? Why even try?

Furthermore, the U.S. has actually been in full compliance with the treaty since the Reagan administration. By recognizing the treaty but failing to ratify it, we have been respecting the rights of others while forfeiting the benefits we would enjoy as a member state of the convention.

The Foreign Relations Committee will soon vote to send the treaty to the Senate floor, where at least 70 senators appear ready to cast their votes in favor. Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE), and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), whose backing is also critical, are all proponents of the treaty. But with appropriations bills, the war in Iraq, and energy legislation all battling for space, time on the Senate floor is limited. And while the treaty may not have many opponents, they will try to use every trick in the book to prevent ratification, including trying to prevent a floor vote.

It is essential that this small group of ideologically driven naysayers not be allowed to hold up this treaty any longer, and that those in favor of the treaty use their political muscle to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote. Vital American interests depend on it.

Don Kraus is Executive Vice President at Citizens for Global Solutions, a non-partisan membership organization.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of International Law and Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.