Category Archives: Congress

Arctic Challenges May Prompt US to Ratify UN Convention on Law of Sea

The European Parliament has passed a Resolution Calling for Protection of the Artic

The European Parliament has passed a Resolution Calling for Protection of the Artic

By Tony Barber, Financial Times
Excuse the pun, but the Arctic is a hot topic in Brussels these days. So hot that I and many others struggled through wintry rain and darkness this morning to hear Elisabeth Walaas, Norway’s state secretary for foreign affairs, give a talk on the challenges facing the High North.

By now, the facts are well-known. The Arctic region is thought to contain huge energy resources, perhaps as much as 20 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable reserves. In an age of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, the temptation to exploit these resources is irresistible.  But the Arctic environment is exceptionally fragile. Global warming is already taking a severe toll. The ice and permafrost are melting. Ocean levels are rising. New shipping routes will open up. Fish stocks will move among different national jurisdictions, raising questions about how to stop uncontrolled harvesting. To cap it all, the US government declared last May that polar bears were an endangered species.

Meanwhile, territorial disputes hang over the Arctic. Canada and the US, for example, disagree about whether the Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway or an international strait. This is no small matter. Once the passage is fully open, shipping companies will be able to knock thousands of nautical miles off their vessels’ journeys between Asia and Europe. Regulating the inevitable surge in maritime traffic will be a heavy responsibility.

The case for a strong international legal framework to govern the Arctic seems unanswerable. But here’s what Walaas said: “As we [in Norway] see it, there are no legal gaps in the Arctic that need to be filled, and no need for a new comprehensive international regime to govern the Arctic. What’s needed is effective implementation of what we’ve got.”  By this, she meant above all the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but also several lesser codes and forums such as the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement, the Arctic Council (to which the European Union has applied for observer status) and the International Maritime Organisation.

All other Arctic states agree with Norway that the existing agreements are sufficient. For the US, former president George W. Bush made that plain in a national security directive adopted only one week before he left office. The main argument is that, unlike the Antarctic, where a treaty system dating to 1961 governs international conduct, the Arctic is an ocean under ice and falls under the scope of the Law of the Sea.   It’s interesting that the odd man out in this debate is the European Parliament. By a big majority, it passed a resolution last October calling for an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic. Legislators were fearful that Russia, in whose territory large amounts of the untapped energy reserves lie, wouldn’t extract the oil and gas without damaging the Arctic environment.

But if Walaas and others are right, then it would help if the US government were finally to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea. George W. Bush’s administration wanted to, but Senate conservatives thwarted him. Now John Kerry, the incoming Senate foreign relations committee chairman, says he will push for ratification because the Arctic is “a strategic priority for our nation”.   Will this be another area where Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House will make a difference?


Obama Administration Supports Law of the Sea Treaty by Ben Block

Obama Will Continue Bush Administrations Support for LOS Treaty
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

Senate Foreign Relations Passes LOS Treaty

By Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) – A Senate panel voted on Wednesday in favor of ratifying an international pact on ocean shipping and deep-sea mining that has languished in Congress for years because critics say it could hurt naval operations and industry.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to back the accord, sending it to the full Senate where it needs a two-thirds vote to win final approval.  President George W. Bush wants the Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying it would allow U.S. armed forces to move freely on the oceans.  More than 150 nations have already joined the 25-year-old pact.

Some Republicans and other critics have argued it would hurt U.S security by overemphasizing peaceful use of the oceans. They cite limits it would impose on collecting intelligence and submarine operations in territorial waters.   Some also have criticized provisions they say would restrict U.S. sovereignty, impose new environmental obligations and thwart commercial development of the deep seabed.  Critics add that the accord would set global rules discouraging deep-sea mining of minerals such as cobalt and manganese.


Supporters say the treaty ensures the U.S. military will not need a “permission slip” in the future to pass through the territorial waters of other nations, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation for the world’s shipping industry.  Joining the treaty also gives the United States a seat at the table to resolve disputes, such as those that could arise over new sea lanes opening up in the Arctic, supporters say.  The treaty guarantees U.S. access to oil, natural gas and other natural resources extending 200 miles (322 km) out from the U.S. shoreline — an area covering nearly 300,000 square miles (776,900 sq km).

“We should become a party to the convention,” said committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.  “The oil and gas industry is unanimous in its support of the convention … . I’m unaware of any ocean industry that has expressed opposition to this treaty,” Biden said.  Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, one of four senators voting in opposition, said he had concerns about dispute resolutions and international seabed authority.

The U.S. Navy already follows many of the rules established by the treaty and backs ratification. It says the treaty will give sailors greater protection under international law.  U.S. ratification also should draw other nations into related partnerships, the Navy said on Wednesday, citing the Proliferation Security Initiative that allows the United States and allies to search ships suspected of carrying weapons.  Specifically, Indonesia and Malaysia have told the U.S. military they will join that initiative if the United States ratifies the Law of the Sea treaty, according to Rear Adm. Bruce MacDonald, judge advocate general of the Navy.

“This goes to bringing other nations on board with other kinds of agreements that we want them to join us on,” he said.   MacDonald noted the ranks of nations that also had not signed onto the treaty included U.S. adversaries.  “Let me tell you who we’re with,” he said. “We’re with Syria not signing. We’re with Libya. We’re with Iran. We’re with North Korea.” (Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts)