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As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 23 urging ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), he indicated that failure to do so “undermines our moral authority” with the rest of the world.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in international waters. It is the rule of law governing the use of the worlds’ oceans and seas’ resources. The Law of the Sea signed in 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, became effective on November 16, 1994. The United States is the only major nation that has not signed UNCLOS. U.S. accession to this law is very important, and Senate lawmakers need to hear this from their constituents.

 Playing the Waiting Game

For the last 18 years, the treaty languished as one Republican member of the Senate after another fought to defeat its passage arguing it threatens to undermine U.S. sovereignty.

Over the course of time, while the Senate dragged its feet, approximately 162 nations signed it- including the European Union. This, Secretary Panetta added, undermines U.S. authority as we insist countries like Iran and North Korea abide by the rules; but, on the other hand, our lawmakers cannot ratify an international treaty. 

Other Administration Officials Join In

Joining Mr. Panetta before the Foreign Relations Committee were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Each high-ranking official stated his or her case for passage. Their reasoning was this treaty would create jobs, gives the oil and gas industry new avenues for exploration, and would help our own national security.

Under customary international law, each nation has a continental shelf extending 200 miles from its shore. The area of the continental shelf that extends further than the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZs) is the “extended continental shelf” (ECS).

Secretary of State Clinton stressed in her testimony that the oil and gas industry has advanced enough, from a technological standpoint, where they can now conduct exploration of the extended continental shelf-, which estimates peg as being extremely resource rich.

There is a mechanism in UNCLOS for adjudicating international waters’ disputes, and it does acknowledge a nation’s sovereignty with respect to its continental shelf extending to 200-miles. 

Businesses who wish to explore the extended continental shelf want certain legal protections prior to making any huge investments.

As Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted during the hearings the U.S. needs to bear in mind that China and Russia are already staking out their claims in the Arctic. From a strategic viewpoint, it would behoove Senators contemplating voting against ratification to note what Senator Kerry said.

Everyone’s a Critic

There are a fair number of critics of UNCLOS. There are even individuals who go to some lengths to be humorous. One such critic is Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times, who wrote in an opinion piece dated May 21, 2012, that UNCLOS is the “…latest assault on American sovereignty and security interests: U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty (better known as LOST).”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a big supporter of this treaty, as evidenced by their recent full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. Under normal circumstances, the Chamber of Commerce is not a regular cheerleader when it relates to issues regarding the U.N.; however, in this instance they are backers of the treaty.

I would think Mr. Gaffney would want to check with the Chamber of Commerce to garner a better understanding of the language contained within UNCLOS.

As to this treaty’s significance, there was an interesting comment to open the May 23 hearings made by Senator Kerry when he said, “…your [the three top Administration officials] presence here, all together, powerfully underscores the importance that you put on this issue.”

Despite the numerous critics, and there will always be those, UNCLOS warrants U.S. Senate ratification.


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