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Senate Panel Takes Up Law of Sea Treaty

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Lauren Weiss

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings in May and June on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which drew strong support from Obama administration officials and Democratic senators but sharp opposition from most Republicans on the panel.

The treaty, which codifies rules of maritime activity, was negotiated from 1973 to 1982. It was amended in 1994 and entered into force later that year. It has more than 160 members, but has never come to a Senate vote.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said during the May 23 hearing he does not “currently intend to bring the treaty to a vote before the November elections.” During a hearing on June 14, Kerry said he plans to hold a hearing with U.S. business leaders. He also stated his plans for a briefing for the entire Senate on the relevant classified information after the November elections.

Although primarily a navigation and economic agreement, the treaty has implications for arms control. For example, it would strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction by clarifying issues of jurisdiction.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and other top government and military officials testified at the hearings that the treaty would ensure U.S. freedom of navigation and provide a new tool to help resolve disputes peacefully. This could be vital, they said, for sorting out competing claims in the South China Sea, as well as for establishing rules to govern the Arctic. The treaty also secures the United States’ exclusive right to exploit resources in the extended continental shelf, particularly off the coast of Alaska, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said in his testimony at the June 14 hearing.

Some Republican senators argue the treaty has been ineffective in resolving maritime disputes. They say the United States does not need to join because countries respect the United States’ maritime rights based on the power of its navy, not treaties. They also voiced concerns over the royalties companies would have to pay to an international organization and the potential threat of lawsuits over environmental issues.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) was the only Republican on the committee to express support for the treaty.