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"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Law of the Sea Convention Marooned in Senate
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Wade Boese


A handful of Republican senators are warning that U.S. accession to the UN Law of the Sea Convention might undermine a U.S.-led initiative to intercept dangerous weapons as well as U.S. sovereignty. Their opposition has helped hold up Senate consideration of the treaty, despite Bush administration and Pentagon support.

With 145 states-parties, the Law of the Sea Convention sets maritime rights and rules for the world’s oceans. The United States warmed to the treaty in 1994 after it was amended to address U.S. concerns about its deep seabed mining provisions that had blocked U.S. signature of the convention when it was first negotiated in 1982.

Despite White House and Pentagon blessings, the treaty has not since been ratified by the United States, in part because of vehement opposition from Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who had been the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until he retired last year. Helms opposed the treaty for a number of reasons, including his long-standing distaste for multilateral organizations.

The pact, however, has long enjoyed the backing of the current chairman and top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.). With his support, the Foreign Relations panel unanimously approved the accord Feb. 25 and sent it to the full Senate for a vote. Other key lawmakers urging passage include Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

They want the Senate to act soon because the convention becomes open to amendment this November. “If the United States is not party to the Convention at that time, our ability to protect Convention rights that we fought hard to achieve will be significantly diminished,” Lugar said in a Feb. 25 statement

Some conservative Republicans, such as Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) and Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), have opposed the convention on the basis that it could hinder the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which is a coalition of 14 states committed to stopping shipments of weapons of mass destruction and missiles in transit. “I am concerned about…being able to board and search ships,” Inhofe said March 23.

Bush administration officials and the Pentagon say such fears are unwarranted. “Far from impeding PSI, joining the convention would actually strengthen the United States’ PSI efforts,” John Turner, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international, environmental, and scientific affairs, said in March 23 testimony.

In an April 7 letter supporting U.S. accession to the convention, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers wrote, “The rules under which U.S. forces have operated for over 40 years to board and search ships or to conduct intelligence activities will not be affected.” He also stated that the convention “ensures the ability of the U.S. Armed Forces to operate freely across the vast expanse of the world’s oceans under the authority of widely recognized and accepted international law.”

Despite its rhetorical support for the treaty, the administration does not appear to be pressing the Senate to act. A senior administration official told Arms Control Today April 21 that “[t]he administration fully supports the Law of the Sea Convention. The issue of timing of Senate action is properly addressed to the Senate leadership.”

Confronted by the conflicts within his own party, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has not scheduled the treaty for review. Frist aides did not respond to inquiries asking why the convention had not been put on the Senate calendar.