American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


Lone Senator Holds up Law of the Sea Treaty Ratification

Posted: September 24, 1998; Revised March 31, 1999

Update: The United States did not ratify the Law of the Sea treaty by the November 1998 deadline. The effect of this action is still to be determined.

This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies on July 24.

IN A NUTSHELL: The American Geophysical Union has sent out the following message to its membership in an effort to encourage Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) to allow the Law of the Sea treaty to complete the ratification process. Ratification has virtually universal support from all interested parties, including environmental groups, the American Petroleum Institute, the oceanographic research community, and the U.S. Navy. Ratification must take place by November 15th or the US loses its place on key governing bodies for treaty implementation. The treaty affects a great number of geoscientists, especially those involved in offshore petroleum exploration, marine minerals development, and marine research. A number of prominent geoscientists were involved in the treaty's development over many years, foremost among them the late Hollis Hedberg, many of whose ideas were incorporated into the final pact, signed in 1982.

Lone Senator Holds up Law of the Sea Treaty Ratification

The President of the United States has the constitutional power to make international treaties, but only with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate. In the case of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), consent from only one senator, Jesse Helms (R-NC), is required before the rest of the Senate even gets a chance for debate. Helms, chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, seems content to let the treaty languish despite support for UNCLOS by many of his Senate colleagues, House members, the U.S. Navy, commercial interests, oceanographic researchers, and the 127 other nations who have already ratified the treaty. Senator Helms has thus far refused to move the treaty out of committee despite an important deadline looming this Fall. After November 15, the U.S. will be denied even its "provisional status" to UNCLOS, which so far has allowed the U.S. to be a member of key governing bodies, despite having not ratified the treaty. Failing to act before November 15 will effectively kick the U.S. out of the Convention, which entered into force around the world four years ago.

Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. agreed to abide by the principles of the Convention in 1982, but objected to Title XI of the document "Deep Seabed Mining." The U.S. and other industrialized nations argued that provisions of Title XI:

Between 1982 and 1994, Title XI was reformed to the satisfaction of the U.S. and other industrialized nations, who signed an agreement promising to ratify the treaty in four years. For the U.S., the four-year grace period ends November 15, 1998.

Why is ratifying the Convention important to the ocean research community? Advocates for the Convention acknowledge that lacking a treaty at present does not cause the U.S. oceanographic research community to suffer mightily. In fact, because President Reagan obligated the U.S. to abide by the treaty in 1982, everything the research community does, or wants to do (namely obtain foreign clearances for ships), is already subject to UNCLOS procedures. Lacking a ratified treaty, however, may trip up U.S. research efforts in the future by denying the U.S. important rights for dispute settlement, and exacerbate the uncertainty of clearing ships seeking to conduct research in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of other countries. The "implied consent" clause within UNCLOS, for example, deems a ship clearance application approved unless the coastal state in question responds with a question or refusal within a specified time. Exercising rights under that one clause could greatly streamline the process for conducting research cruises off foreign shores. For ocean researchers, many observers point out, there is no conceivable downside to ratifying the treaty, and several potential upsides.

Supporters of ratification point out that the Convention provides a predictable framework for commercial and military operations at sea, and reduces both the potential for military conflict and the cost of operations at sea. The Convention also establishes internationally recognized maritime zones, protects mining rights, fishing rights, overflight activities, and the freedom to lay and maintain cables along the ocean floor. Commercial heavyweights such as AT&T, Sprint, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the American Petroleum Institute all support ratification of UNCLOS. More than 100 environmental groups worldwide who support the Convention complete the wide spectrum of organizations backing the Convention.

Why then, does Senator Helms refuse to even hold a hearing? The answer is unclear, because even Helms was satisfied with the modifications to Title XI hammered out between 1982 and 1984, according to Capitol Hill sources. Chairman Helms won't consider the treaty in his committee apparently because of his ideological opposition to any treaty that could potentially weaken U.S. sovereignty, the Convention's direct association with the United Nations, and Helms' desire to extract concessions from the Clinton Administration over other treaties, such as the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) pact and the Kyoto Global Warming accord signed in December, 1997. Many of his colleagues in the Senate, both Republican and Democrat, have implored him in letters to move the treaty forward. Pressure is also mounting from the House, particularly from Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), chair of the Military Research and Development Subcommittee of the National Security Committee, who has crafted a Dear Colleague letter to Senator Helms urging him to act on the treaty.

Weldon is trying to attract as many signatories to his Dear Colleague letter as possible, and seeks help from all who are concerned about ratifying the treaty to contact their representatives urging them to sign on to the letter. Attracting the North Carolina delegation to the cause is crucial, given that Senator Helms is particularly attentive to his constituents, and tends to listen to voices from his home state regardless of the issue. The North Carolina House delegation is:

Eva Clayton (D-1st District)
Bob Etheridge (D-2nd District)
Walter B. Jones (R-3rd District)
David E. Price (D-4th District)
Richard Burr (R-5th District)
Howard Coble (R-6th District)
Mike McIntyre (D-7th District)
W.G. (Bill) Hefner (D-8th District)
Sue Myrick (R-9th District)
Cass Ballinger (R-10th District)
Charles H. Taylor (R-11th District)
Melvin L. Watt (D-12th District).

For guidance on writing, ASLA 97-12 is available on the AGU web page. To determine by zip code who your representative is, visit the House "Write Your Representative" page at
Sources: AGU, Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, NASULGC

Additional Reading: United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs, Office of Legal Affairs Oceans and Law of the Sea Home Page.

AGU Alert Contributed by Peter Folger, AGU Public Affairs Manager; This alert posted by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Uploaded September 27, 1998; Revised March 31, 1999

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