Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Sea treaty draws opposition from U.S. conservatives

25 April 2014
An American flag flies from the U.S. Capitol in Washington Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011. Photo credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, came into effect in 1994. At present, 165 countries are party to the convention. The United States, despite being involved in the negotiations that developed the treaty, is not.

Steven Groves is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He has spoken and written about reasons the United States should not become party to the treaty, including in 2012, when he testified on the matter at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Groves' view is shared by many conservatives in the U.S. Senate who have blocked ratification of the treaty.

He spoke to Global Journalist’s Margaux Henquinet about the issue, and why he thinks other solutions to maritime disputes are better.

GJ: What are some of the reasons that you think that the United States should not sign the Law of the Sea treaty?

There are a number of reasons why the United States shouldn’t join the Law of the Sea Treaty, including article 82, which would require the United States to share its royalties from oil and gas exploration on the continental shelf with the international sea bed authority, who would then distribute those monies to developing countries rather than keeping those royalties for ourselves, putting them into the U.S. Treasury. Another reason is that would require the United States to go to international court or dispute resolution when any other party to the treaty sues the United States. We’ve had some pretty bad experiences with international courts in the past. And finally, there’s a problem with the deep sea bed provisions of the treaty in that the treaty sets up this international organization and puts it in control of all of the deep sea bed mining, and the United States would have to go to it and get its permission and have it regulate its deep sea bed mining operations should it ever engage in it. There are good parts of the treaty, there are parts of the treaty that are not controversial, but there are several provisions that we are concerned with that collectively lead us to the conclusion that we shouldn’t ratify the treaty.

GJ: We’ve heard some people talk about how there are potential opportunities for mining there that the United States is missing out on because they are not a member of the treaty. Do you think that there are other ways that the United States could get some of those resources without signing the treaty?

Well, the first thing that’s wrong with those statements is that there isn’t any deep sea bed mining going on right now. This treaty was written back in the 1970s, when people thought that deep sea bed mining was going to be economically feasible and that the minerals that were on the sea floor were worth going down and dredging up and processing. All of that has gone out the window, and in fact no major or, I think, minor deep sea bed mining has ever occurred, and to this day has not occurred. To the extent that it ever becomes economically viable to mine the deep sea bed, there is nothing standing in the way of the United States for engaging in deep sea bed mining. It’s a freedom of the high seas, no other country can prohibit us from engaging in it. So if a U.S. company finds it economically feasible to do so, it’s well within its rights to do so with America’s blessing.

GJ: What do you think the United States could be doing in terms of dispute resolution? Are there other things that they should try to pursue instead of this specific treaty?

Well, the United States has resolved maritime disputes throughout its history, before the Law of the Sea treaty ever came into existence. We have maritime boundary disputes with some of our neighbors, including Canada. We have resolved our maritime boundaries with Mexico and Cuba. There is no requirement that anyone be a party to a treaty in order to negotiate bilaterally with their maritime neighbors and determine between themselves what their maritime border should be, which is what we’ve done successfully not just here in the continental United States but also out around Hawaii, around the U.S. territories in the Pacific, and including deciding what our maritime boundary is with the Soviet Union back in 1991. So with friends and with enemies alike, we’ve been able to resolve our maritime disputes amicably without being a party to the treaty.

GJ: What kind of changes would you need to see made to the treaty before you would consider supporting having the United States join it?

Unfortunately, there’s no changes to the treaty that could be made that would lead me to be convinced that the treaty should be ratified. When you look at the treaty in its totality, there are good parts to it, but nothing that would be essential to making sure the United States can advance and attain its national interests all around the world in terms of our maritime interests. The problem is that a bad deal was struck during the Law of the Sea negotiations that had these provisions about revenue sharing and deep sea bed mining and compulsory dispute resolution that were negotiated by well-meaning American negotiators but really don’t make any sense to me today in the 21st century. There’s no amendments that would change unless they excised these provisions completely from the treaty. If the treaty just covered the areas where there’s broad consensus, the measuring of maritime zones, high seas freedoms, even basic provisions regarding environmental protection, this thing would have been ratified during the Reagan administration. The problem is they included all of these controversial provisions in the treaty, and the Americans allowed them to be part of the final package, and that’s why we’ve never joined.

GJ: Are there any not-big questions that people should be asking?

The big questions that I think they should be asking is, give me some hard data, some hard evidence or even anecdotal evidence that the United States’ failure to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty has in any way prevented the United States from attaining its national interests. I’ve yet to hear anyone, the most dedicated proponents of the treaty, come up with an example of, “Geez, if we had just been a party to the treaty back in 2003, then this would have been a better result.” No one can come up with an answer for that, because the United States doesn’t need the treaty in order to advance its interests. So that’s the big question that no one has an answer to. What exactly does the United States get by joining the treaty?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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