Senior officials of the Obama Administration are promising to join a longstanding international agreement that oversees ocean resource and pollution disputes. During last week’s Cabinet confirmation hearings, leaders in both the U.S. Senate and the administration of newly elected President Barack Obama conveyed support for the treaty, known as the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, suggesting an end to decades of dispute over U.S. accession.
The treaty already has support from a diverse coalition of U.S. interest groups that represent national security, industry, and the environment. Yet continued opposition from Republican lawmakers may stall ratification, in a test for whether the Obama administration can galvanize support for international environmental agreements, observers said. The Law of the Sea has set international standards for fishing, deep sea mining, and navigation since the majority of the world’s countries signed it in 1982. It provides coastal nations with exclusive rights to ocean resources within 200 nautical miles of their borders – areas known as “exclusive economic zones,” or EEZs.
The agreement also oversees an international tribunal to settle fishing, pollution, and property rights disputes, as well as the International Seabed Authority, a body formed to assign mining rights beyond the EEZs. If the United States approves the treaty, the agreement would include the country with the largest EEZ in the world, while also potentially clearing the way for U.S. oil companies to mine the Arctic Ocean. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush supported the treaty during their tenures, but conservative members of Congress repeatedly blocked its ratification due to concerns that it would limit commerce and allow international bodies to wield greater control over U.S. interests.
President Obama’s administration and current Senate leaders have already expressed support for the treaty. During the confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska asked whether the treaty would be a priority. “Yes, it will be, and it will be because it is long overdue,” Clinton said in response. “If people start drilling in areas that are now ice free most of the year, and we don’t know where they can and can’t drill or whether we can, we’re going to be disadvantaged. So I think that you will have a very receptive audience in our State Department and in our administration.”
Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chair of the foreign relations committee, followed Clinton’s response with his own support for the treaty. “We are now laying the groundwork for and expect to try to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty. So that will be one of the priorities of the committee,” Kerry said. “The key here is just timing.” President Obama and the Congress are focusing foremost on national economic recovery. The House of Representatives is debating an $825 billion financial bailout that would provide $550 billion for government spending in several environmentally related infrastructure projects and $275 billion in tax cuts for families and businesses.
Among the international treaties that President Obama supported during his campaign – including a nuclear test ban, a global bill of rights for women, biodiversity accords, and a renewed climate change agreement – the Law of the Sea is likely to face less opposition, according to observers. It is supported by a wide array of interest groups, including the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, international environmental groups, and the mining, fishing, shipping, and telecommunications industries. “The fact is, if you can’t get the Law of the Sea treaty through the Senate with the breadth of support it currently has…it will be very difficult to really run the trap [lines] on any of these other treaties,” said Don Kraus, Chief Executive Officer of the lobbying group Citizens for Global Solutions.
In his final week in office, former President George W. Bush issued a directive calling for the Senate to ratify the treaty “promptly.” Yet conservatives insist that approval will not be simple. “If [Democratic leaders] start cramming a bunch of controversial treaties down the Senate’s throat with the thinking that Republicans will just take it, I think they’re wrong,” said Steven Groves, a Heritage Foundation international law fellow. “So many of these treaties are objectionable, and Law of the Sea is one of them.”
Industry groups support the treaty largely for its clarification of rules regarding the high seas – ocean waters beyond national jurisdiction – and the Arctic Ocean. Russia, Canada, the United States, and several Scandinavian countries have all claimed territorial rights to Arctic maritime regions as ice caps recede. Environmental groups oppose oil drilling in much of the Arctic due to concerns about oil spills and habitat destruction. Yet groups such as the Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature still support the treaty for the clarity and negotiating space it can provide.
“The fear is that oil drilling and mining will happen even if it doesn’t happen by U.S. companies,” said Roberta Elias, senior program officer for marine and fisheries policy at World Wildlife Fund-U.S., a Law of the Sea supporter. “It’s about getting the U.S. a seat at the table and, by proxy, getting environmentalists a seat at the table.” The opposition from some Republican members of Congress is mostly a reflection of their deep-seated distrust of the United Nations and other international bodies. “This seems to me a bit of a Trojan Horse for the ability of one country to affect another country’s environmental policy,” Groves said. “That’s generally something we do not like as conservatives and Americans.”
The Clinton administration renegotiated the treaty in 1994 so it would be more favorable to U.S. interests, yet Congress still failed to support it. If another political fight prevents ratification, other efforts such as international climate negotiations may potentially be at risk, said Caitlyn Antrim, executive director for Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, an advocate of the Law of the Sea treaty.
“As we move forward to serious climate negotiations, countries will be very skeptical the administration can deliver on an agreement if we can’t deliver on the Law of the Sea, which everyone knows was negotiated in our interest,” Antrim said. Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org