US Is Dangerously Adrift on Law of the Sea, and Republicans in Danger of Tipping Boat
A little overshadowed by the Olympics, the Yeosu 2012 Expo is, in its own way, doing more than the London Games to promote global harmony — and without stirring up the waters the way the British did when they posted the South Korean flag for the North Korean women’s football team.
Next weekend, as the expo holds another session celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Law of the Sea, with an Asian perspective, it is worth remembering that there are people in the US establishment every bit as pugnaciously ideological as any Pyongyang commissar, and above all on the question of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
It has been five years since the George W. Bush administration, not the most UN-friendly of recent presidencies, declared the need for the United States to ratify the treaty, backed by the Pentagon and the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That was already 25 years after the rest of the world had finished drafting the treaty.
Since then, the melting sea ice in the Arctic and the competing claims to seabed resources there under the former polar ice cap have accentuated the US need for the treaty. Not just the navy, but telecoms, maritime and oil lobbies have put their weight behind ratification.
Recently an open letter signed by previous Republican secretaries of state also called for it.
On Jul. 16, however, 34 Republican senators signed a letter opposing ratification, which is one more than necessary to block the needed two-thirds majority. It is a moot point whether the opposition to the treaty from inside the United States is motivated by specific objections to its provisions or just a generalized conservative aversion to all forms of international law.
However, in any case it is a sad commentary on the US government that a bigoted minority has thwarted US participation in a convention universally welcomed by all rational US political factions and which has already been signed by 162 other countries.
Mark MacGuigan, the former Canadian minister for external affairs, described the convention’s truly global scope at the conference that produced the final draft:
“The conference is not merely an attempt to codify technical rules of law. It is a resource conference; it is a food conference; it is an environmental conference; it is an energy conference; it is an economic conference; it is maritime-boundary delimitation conference; it is a territorial-limitation and jurisdictional conference; it is a transportation, communications and freedom-of-navigation conference; it is a conference which regulates all the uses of the ocean by humanity.
“Most important, it is a conference which provides for the peaceful settlement of disputing the oceans. It is, in other words, a conference dedicated to the rule of law among nations.”
Which is, perhaps, why some in the United States want nothing to do with it.
It was relatively easy to establish conventions on outer space, and indeed on the Antarctic, since there was little or no commercial or military activity going on there. But ITLOS had to take into account not only the millennia-long history of human endeavors on the oceans, but also the future aspirations, like sea bottom mining.
Only last year, the tribunal resolved its first boundary dispute between Myanmar and Bangladesh, to apparent mutual satisfaction, just as it could adjudicate on Russian claims to the seabed under the North Pole that compete with those of Canada and the United States.
But Washington’s failure to ratify the treaty knocks it out of the process, hence the rush of interest by all but most blinkered. It is not only bad for the United States, it sends a wrong signal to the rest of the world — not least to the countries surrounding the China Sea.
Half a dozen navies are circling round asserting competing claims to atolls and islets with their territorial waters. They are interested in the oil under the water, but their unresolved disputes are like gasoline waiting for a match. Clearly, an arbitrated legal adjudication could resolve the situation.
But the biggest navy in the area, with treaties with many of the claimant countries, belongs to a country that has yet to sign up for the most appropriate body of law and institutions to cope with the complexity of the region.
Ratification is not only good for the United States and for the world, it would allow the president, backed by all those Republican secretaries of state, presidents and chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee, to expose the ideological obduracy of his opponents. President Obama should at least sign the treaty and challenge Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to explain why his supporters oppose ratification.
We can assume that for some of them, it is simply a case of going along with raucous idiocy, and they might reconsider if the White House summoned some of those oil and defense lobbyists to make a call.
Inter Press Service
Ian Williams is a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus.