Law of the Sea (2-27-04)
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was open for signature
between December 1982 and December 1984, established a legal regime
governing activities on, over, and under the worlds oceans.
The Convention resulted from the third U.N. Conference on the Law
of the Sea, which met for a total of 93 weeks between December 1973
and December 1982. While supporting most of the treaty, the United
States and other industrialized countries, did not sign or would not
ratify the Convention without important changes to the parts that
dealt with deep seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction. Subsequently,
the United States led a successful effort to revise the deep sea mining
provisions and signed the convention in 1994.
On October 7, 1994, President Bill Clinton transmitted to the Senate
the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and 1994 Agreement
relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the U.N. Convention (Treaty
Document 103-39). The package was referred to the Senate Committee
on Foreign Relations for their consideration with hopes of quick ratification
on the Senate floor. But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), then chair of the
Foreign Relations Committee, had concerns about this treaty and declined
to hold any hearings, leaving the issue dormant until 2002.
On April 8, 2002, in remarks at a U.N. meeting, U.S. Ambassador Mary
Beth West confirmed President George W. Bush's support for U.S. accession
to the Convention, noting we intend to work with the U.S. Senate
to move forward on becoming a party. (USUN Press Release #49).
Further, the current Administration has pushed for U.S. acession to
the Convention because it meets U.S. national security, economic,
and environmental interests."
On February 25th the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously
to adopt the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty provides
a comprehensive framework for ocean management, which nearly 140 countries
have ratified. The United States has hesitated on ratification due
to concerns that the treaty would limit opportunities to exploit offshore
natural resources and that developing nations would be given the same
influence as developed countries. The treaty will be open to amendment
later this year and if the United States is not party to it by then
it would be hard to protect the convention rights that the U.S. fought
hard to achieve. The treaty will now move to the Senate floor, where
it will need a two-thirds approval to pass. (2/27/04)
Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing
on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on October 14th. Chaired
by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Committee sought to continue
the work that began so long ago to produce a comprehensive international
framework governing the use of the world's oceans. In his opening
statement, Chairman Lugar said, "The Law of the Sea Convenion
has great potential to advance U.S. interests related to the navigation
of the seas, the productive use of their resources, and the protection
of the marine environment." On October 21, 2003, the committee
met again to hear from military experts, industry executives and environmentalists
about the mechanics of approving the Convention. They sought to pinpoint
areas of concern, contentious issues and common ground. A summary
of the testimony is available here.
On Sep. 28, 1945, President Harry S. Truman declared the continental
shelf to be U.S. government property, saying: The Government
of the United States regards the natural resources of the subsoil
and seabed of the continental shelf beneath the high seas but contiguous
to the coasts of the United States as appertaining to the United States,
subject to its jurisdiction and control.
Although Truman used the term continental shelf, he was referring
to the entire continental margin which includes the shelf,
slope and rise. Trumans statement was a claim of new ocean territory
and the resources on the bottom. Unfortunately, Trumans declaration
was not enough. An international law was needed to govern the rights
and boundaries on the high seas. In 1982, the United Nations stepped
in with its Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Put into force in 1994, the Convention established customary international
laws such as limiting all coastal countries territorial sovereignty
of the sea to 12 nautical miles beyond its shores and maintaining
high-sea freedoms within a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone
or EEZ. One hundred and thirty seven countries have joined the convention,
including Russia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Australia, New
Zealand, Argentina and Brazil. Notably absent is the United States.
Although the United States worked with the UN to establish the laws
of the 1982 Convention, it did not sign because of concerns over rights
to deep seabed mining. When an amendment resolved those concerns in
1994, the U.S. signed the amendment, but not the Convention. Since
then, the Senate has not ratified the amendment or the Convention.
In the meantime, the United States acts as an observer to the proceedings
related to the treaty without acting as a formal party.
The Convention also established the Commission on the Limits of the
Continental Shelf. The commission holds elections every five years,
with the last elections being held in April 2002. The commission recommends
to the UN whether the limits a country submits for its continental
shelf are scientifically valid, legally defensible and politically
Following a November 2001 workshop in Washington, President Bushs
recently created Commission on Ocean Policy encouraged the Senate
to ratify the Convention before February 2002. Members of the American
Bar Association, the House of Representatives, the State Department
and the U.S. Coast Guard testified on the Conventions importance
to domestic resources and international security.
It is true that there is a long list of treaties which the United
States has signed, abides by and supports, but has not ratified,
says Robert Hirshon, president of the American Bar Association. He
went on to note that until it joins the UN Convention on the Law of
the Sea, the United States is ineligible to elect a scientist to the
Commission on the Continental Shelf and identify for the Convention
the limits of its continental margin beyond 200 nautical miles. As
oil exploitation has now become technologically feasible in these
distant areas, certainty of jurisdiction is essential to stability,
Although the Bush administration supports the Convention, the final
decision rests with the Senate. Whereas Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IL),
chairman of the committee, supports the Law of the Sea, other Republican
committee members long led by former Committee Chairman Jesse Helms
(R-N.C.) oppose ratification. Senate Republicans generally speaking
have not supported the Law of the Sea treaty because it would create
new United Nations bureaucracy, Lester Munson, press secretary
for the minority staff of the Foreign Relations Committee told Geotimes
in 2002. Additionally, he says there are more technical objections,
but he did not disclose them.
Still, with the support of the Bush administration and U.S. industry,
a consensus is growing to move forward with formal U.S. participation
in the Law of the Sea. At the November 2001 workshop for the Commission
on Ocean Policy, Robert Hirshon summed up those sentiments: There
does not now appear to be any rationale that supports our continuing
nonparticipation in an agreement that so effectively stemmed the rising
tide of claims of national jurisdiction in the oceans, and that will
continue to serve our interests as long as the United States sits
astride two great oceans.
Sources: Environment & Energy Daily, Hearing Testimony, Senate
Foreign Relations Committee website, United Nations Press Release.
Background section includes material from January
2002 issue of Geotimes.
Contributed by Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program staff
and Gayle Levy, AGI/AAPG 2004 Spring Semester Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on February 27, 2004