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US Congress Ponders International Sea Treaty

  • Michael Bowman

US officials Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta testify on Land of Sea treaty

US officials Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta testify on Land of Sea treaty

CAPITOL HILL - The Obama administration says the United States should join a global maritime treaty known as the Law of the Sea Convention. The convention has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but is unlikely to advance before the November general election.

More than 160 nations belong to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs how nations may use the world's oceans and the resources they contain. All major industrialized nations have ratified the treaty except the United States. The Obama administration wants to change that, and dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Capitol Hill to argue for U.S. accession before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Before either could speak, committee chairman John Kerry made an announcement. "I would like to see this treaty stay out of the hurly-burly [distractions] of presidential politics. So, heeding that advice, I announce today that I do not currently intend to bring the treaty to a vote before the November elections," he said.

Kerry nevertheless urged ratification. "Ratifying the treaty will lock in the favorable navigational rights that our military and shipping interests depend on every single day. It will strengthen our hand against China and others who stake out claims in the Pacific, the Arctic, or elsewhere. It will give our oil and gas companies the certainty that they need to make crucial investments to secure our energy future. And it will help secure access to rare earth minerals which we need for weapons systems, computers, cell phones, and the like," he said.

Secretary of State Clinton echoed that view. "If we do not join the convention, our companies will miss out on opportunities to explore vast areas of continental shelf and deep seabed. If we do join the convention, we unlock economic opportunities worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars," she said.

Defense Secretary Panetta argued that adhering to international conventions strengthens America's moral authority when it comes to pressuring other states to do likewise.

"Every time we argue with Iran, every time we argue with North Korea, we argue on the basis that they are not abiding by international rules - they are not abiding by the international standards that we have established. And here we are, trying to make the same argument with regards to navigation, and we are not even a member of the convention," Panetta said.

Those opposed to ratification say joining the Law of the Sea Convention would erode U.S. sovereignty.

"If the U.S. approves the treaty, it would be forced to transfer billions of dollars in royalties generated from oil and gas production on the U.S. extended continental shelf to the U.N. International Seabed Authority for redistribution to the developing world. And this is the first time in history that an international organization, the U.N. in this case, would possess taxing authority over this country," said Republican Senator James Inhofe.

Secretary Clinton noted that, as a member of the convention, the United States would have veto rights over royalty distribution. And, she argued, the treaty's benefits far outweigh any costs. "Critics claim we would surrender U.S. sovereignty under this treaty. But, in fact, it is exactly the opposite. We would secure sovereign rights over vast new areas and resources," she said.

If congressional consideration is postponed until after the November elections, ratification would either be taken up in the so-called "lame duck" session before new legislators are sworn in - or by the new Congress, which will convene next year.