UNCLOS is back. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (aka, the Law of the Sea Treaty) was first hammered out in 1982. Twelve years later, U.S. negotiators signed an amended agreement, but it was never ratified. Now Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, is pressing for Senate approval, claiming the treaty would give the United States new rights and advantages.
Unfortunately, it does not. What “rights” it recognizes already exist in customary international law. Treaty supporters claim ratification will give the U.S. additional rights to oil, gas and minerals in the deep seabed of its extended continental shelf. But the U.S. already has clear legal title and rights to the resources of its continental shelf (even though the current administration bans drilling there).
Similarly, the treaty’s navigational provisions offer nothing new. Yes, the U.S. Navy says UNCLOS might improve the “predictability” of these rights, but does the Navy’s access to international waters really depend upon a treaty to which we are not even a member? The last time I checked, the U.S. Navy could go anywhere it wanted in international waters.
Though redundant, the navigational provisions of UNCLOS are actually pretty good. That’s why President Ronald Reagan supported them. But Reagan and others objected to the unaccountable international bureaucracy created by the treaty.
UNCLOS reflects the 1970’s “new economic order” ideology that viewed ocean riches as the “common heritage of mankind.” Consequently, it establishes a bureaucracy to redistribute the wealth of the deep seabed and the extended continental shelf.
Were the U.S. to join, it would have to share with “developing” nations any royalty revenue generated on its continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile mark. The International Seabed Authority would decide just how these revenues are distributed. The U.S. by itself would have no veto over its decisions.
Consensus often works against U.S. interests in the U.N. General Assembly, and it would do so in this international body. Imagine how a U.N.-like body with a “right” to distribute U.S. revenues would behave.
The convention would also force the U.S. to settle any claim brought against it by another treaty member through a dispute resolution process. This process would be bound by American law, but be buffeted by the fancies of international politics. Corrupt nations game the U.N. for selfish gain. Given the chance, they would do so here.
Opportunistic nations would lodge any number of specious allegations, charging anything from environmental degradation to poisoning the ocean with carbon emissions. The U.S. would be treaty-bound to adhere to whatever decisions are handed down.
Treaty supporters like to claim that, were he alive today, Reagan would support the treaty. It’s hard to see how they can divine this conclusion. In June 1982, Reagan noted in his diary that he would oppose ratification of this treaty even if the deep seabed mining provisions did not exist.
Former Attorney General Ed Meese, Reagan’s friend and confidant, says Reagan’s objection to the convention was largely philosophical. He didn’t like the idea of establishing an international bureaucracy that would supersede U.S. rights of sovereignty. He knew that other nations would use this treaty to work against U.S. interests in ways not imagined in the benign scenarios painted by its supporters.
It is painful to read early accounts by enthusiasts of the United Nations. They could scarcely have imagined that Turtle Bay could produce such abominations as the resolution that once equated Zionism with racism. Nor could they contemplate that abusive regimes like those of Libya, Cuba, the former Soviet Union and China would one day sit on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and pass judgment on the U.S.
Reagan, however, was well aware of this potential. He had seen it happen repeatedly. That’s why he opposed the Law of the Sea Treaty.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.