The origins of the Law of the Sea Treaty date back to late 1945 when President Harry Truman claimed the natural resources of the continental shelf beyond the territorial sea of the United States. At that time, America’s position was that coastal state sovereignty ended at the three mile limit.
Three years later, Peru, Chile and Ecuador claimed 200 mile limits even though they all have essentially no continental shelf. They seized U.S. tuna boats that were inside their 20 mile limit. This led to tuna, cod and shrimp wars. The Truman Administration responded by claiming rights out to 200 miles on the seabed for offshore oil and natural gas drilling purposes, but other nations went further by claiming both the water and air space rights.
The disputes about navigation and airspace rights led to the first United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. Initially it was known as the Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea. The original agreement primarily addressed fishing and mineral rights. A second Law of the Sea Convention in 1960 expanded to address navigation rights, however an agreement was not reached.
The United Nations General Assembly in December of 1969 passed a resolution barring the exploration of the ocean floor beyond a nation’s territorial limits. The Nixon Administration reacted to this in May of 1970 by proposing a third round of negotiations on the Law of the Sea. It was President Nixon, not the United Nations, who called the oceans “a common heritage of mankind.” The talks began in 1972, and they resulted in what is today referred to as the LOS Treaty. The proposal for royalty payments from deep sea mining activities beyond 200 nautical miles originated from the Nixon Administration.
The LOS Treaty is already in effect. It was signed by 160 nations on December 10, 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica. For a Treaty to enter into force it must receive ratification ascension from 60 nations. This occurred on November 16, 1993 when LOS was ratified by Guyana. The Treaty took effect one year later, on November 16, 1994.
The Treaty has now been ratified by 145 nations, including every major industrialized power. Since 1983 the United States has been abiding by all of the provisions in the LOS Treaty except for the provision concerning deep sea mining (which was changed to address U.S. concerns in 1994).
. After the necessary alterations were made, President Clinton signed the Treaty. The LOS Treaty officially entered into force in 1994. However, LOS was never brought before the U.S. Senate for a ratification vote.
The provisional participation of the United States in the Convention on the Law of the Sea expired in 1998. Thus the U.S. risks loosing a seat at the LOS amendment talks if it fails to adopt the treaty. The Treaty has been eligible for amendment since November of 2004.
The LOS Treaty will remain in effect with or without U.S. participation, but U.S. membership will allow America to have an impact on its implementation and even greater influence. Most observers believe it would be best if America had a seat at the table.