Senate Pressured To Ratify 'Law Of The Sea'

For three decades the Law of the Sea treaty has been debated without ever being approved by the Senate. But proponents say the stakes have never been higher for ratifying the convention. The irony is that just about everyone — of all political stripes, from oil and gas companies, environmental groups, to the U.S. military — is on board with the treaty. Still, a small group of opponents has managed to stall its passage.

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The U.S. is the only industrialized country that has not signed the Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty includes rules about access to undersea minerals and the right of free passage for ships. A hundred sixty other nations have ratified it. After decades of argument, the Obama administration is pressuring senators to ratify the treaty. But diehard opponents say they have enough votes to prevent that.

NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Law of the Sea treaty is just an ordinary-looking bound document, full of jargon and articles and complicated clauses. But when you hold the nearly 300-page treaty in your hand, you can almost feel the weight of 30 years of arguments, efforts, and delays trying to ratify it in the U.S. Senate. A recent debate there repeated many of the same arguments heard over the years. This from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: The myth that somehow this would surrender U.S. sovereignty, nothing could be further from the truth.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Russia and the other Arctic states are advancing their continental shelf claims in the Arctic while we are on the outside looking in.

NORTHAM: And now from Republican Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Idaho's Jim Risch.

SENATOR JIM DEMINT: Why do we need to give in to all of this in order to be able to operate our navy as we have for years around the world?

SENATOR JIM RISCH: Why, oh why, oh why, do we, as Americans, give up our taxing authority, handing money over to the United Nations?

NORTHAM: One could assume this was just typical Washington partisan politics. In fact, what's unusual about the Law of the Sea Treaty is that it has widespread support from both parties, but efforts to pass it are always scuppered, says John Bellinger, who was a senior legal official in the George W. Bush administration.

JOHN BELLINGER: The military and national security establishment are strongly, strongly in favor of the treaty and there is no sector of business industry that is not supportive of the treaty - oil, gas, mining, shipping. And, nonetheless, there continues to be a hard core of conservatives who are concerned participating in international institutions.

NORTHAM: Bellinger says the Bush administration initially viewed the Law of the Sea Treaty with deep skepticism, but eventually pushed hard for its ratification. Bellinger says the treaty will give American companies the legal backing they need to tap into stocks of oil, natural gas and rare earth minerals on the ocean floor. He says this is particularly important in the warming waters of the Arctic.

But Steven Groves, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says signing on to the multilateral agreement will make the U.S. more vulnerable.

STEVEN GROVES: Because, if you join the treaty, you are required to answer any lawsuits that are brought against you by other countries that are party to the treaty and this opens the door to baseless lawsuits, environmental claims, even charges of causing climate change.

NORTHAM: Still, Bellinger says the benefits of the treaty far outweigh those concerns. For example, he says the Law of the Sea Treaty will strengthen and codify the freedom of navigation rights of the U.S. Navy. Bellinger says that's increasingly important as the U.S. shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific region, where countries such as China, which is a signatory to the treaty, are staking out claims.

BELLINGER: China is clearly making claims that are violative of the Law of the Sea Convention. The United States tries to complain about these violations, but of course, we have no leg to stand on when we ourselves are not parties to the Law of the Sea Convention.

NORTHAM: Under the treaty, the U.S. would pay a percentage of its profits, less than 10 percent, to an international treaty organization, which would then distribute the funds among poor and landlocked countries.

The Heritage Foundation's Groves says that includes countries such as Cuba and Sudan.

GROVES: There are some red lines here that conservatives don't want to cross. We believe our natural resources belong to us and should be kept within the United States.

NORTHAM: But Bellinger says, in the meantime, American companies are missing out as other countries that have signed on to the treaty are staking out claims.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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