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Law of the Sea Treaty

No More "Wild West" on the "High Seas"


Disney pirate ship sales through Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour

Disney pirate ship sales through Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour

Photo: Getty
September 4, 2007

There was a time when the western part of the United States was mostly lawless, the "Wild West." Yet slowly but surely, as humanity started to fill up the space, law became more and more necessary. Commerce, land use, water rights and more all require agreed upon laws. Civilization is one term for this process.

Like the "Wild West," the term "High Seas" refers to an area outside of normal laws. The parts of Earth's oceans and seas which can be claimed by no single country (or can be claimed by so many countries that the claims are meaningless) have long been ruled by either pirates or the strongest navy.

Here again though, commerce, shipping lanes, mineral resources, fishing rights, environmental concerns, and more mean that law and civilization are in demand. As far back as the mid-1950s, the world began a process for determining exactly which waters belonged to which countries and how the remainder could be shared for the benefit of all.

Forging the Law of the Sea Treaty

The treaty process has evolved over the last 50 years into the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Today, almost every country on the planet has ratified the convention... except the United States.

America has actually followed most provisions of the treaty since 1983 and all of the provisions since 1994. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1994 and sent it to the U.S. Senate, but it has never been taken up by the full Senate for a ratification vote. Conservatives have long opposed the treaty and, even when Democrats previously controlled the Senate, there has never seemed to be the 66 votes needed for passage. But the situation is changing.

On May 15, 2007, President Bush called on the Senate to ratify UNCLOS. And this month the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to open hearings on the treaty which could lead to a full vote before the end of the year. Recent claims by Russia and others to own the mineral rights on the floor of the Arctic Ocean have only added to a sense of urgency. Those claims will likely be untangled by courts and tribunals established by UNCLOS. If the United States isn't part of UNCLOS, it won't have a voice in the outcome.

Supporting the Law of the Sea Treaty

Supporters, including the U.S. military, say the treaty secures American rights over territorial waters (including the mineral resources underwater). Moreover, ratification of the treaty ensures the United States will have a seat at the table when disputes arise or modifications of the treaty are considered.

Opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty

Opponents say the treaty impinges on U.S. national sovereignty and sets up an international bureaucracy which may act in ways counter to American interests.

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