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Should the United States ratify the UN Law of the Sea?

Question submitted by Jason Thomas, November 11, 2014

Answered by: John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law

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Yes, the Senate should approve, and the United States should join, the Law of the Sea Convention, to which 166 countries are already party.

When I was the legal adviser for the National Security Council, the Bush administration concluded after a careful interagency review that the Convention clearly serves U.S. national security, economic, and environmental interests. As a result, the Bush Administration strongly supported Senate approval of the Convention, as does the Obama administration. I testified in favor of the Convention in both 2007 and 2012.

The Convention provides clear, treaty-based rights for U.S. ships and aircraft to travel through and over the territorial seas of other coastal states. This is why the U.S. Navy, with the largest fleet in the world, has long supported the treaty. In this time of shrinking defense budgets, the Navy wants clear legal rights to freedom of navigation when it cannot have more ships to assert these rights in practice.

The Convention would also codify U.S. legal rights to exploit vast oil and gas resources on our extended continental shelf off the coast of Alaska (an area the size of two Californias), to mine valuable minerals on the deep seabed, and to lay and service submarine telecommunications cables. U.S. companies are not willing to invest the billions of dollars necessary to exploit Arctic resources unless they have the clear legal rights guaranteed by the Convention. As a result, the treaty is also strongly supported by the U.S. business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major oil companies, the shipping and fishing industry, and telecommunications companies.

Unfortunately, some Republican Senators have blocked Senate approval of the Law of the Sea Convention based on myths and misperceptions about the treaty, including concerns that president Reagan opposed the treaty when it was originally drafted in 1982, and that it might now infringe on U.S. sovereignty. But the flaws identified by president Reagan were fixed by amendments to the treaty in 1994 (which led all other major industrial countries to join the treaty). And far from infringing on U.S. sovereignty, joining the Law of the Sea Convention would codify U.S. sovereignty over vast new oil and gas resources in the Arctic. Other countries have benefited greatly by joining the Convention, and the United States is losing out by remaining on the sidelines.