The outlook for ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea this term in Congress is not good. Opponents have long said they worry about the treaty’s infringement on the nation’s sovereignty. Specifics to what that means are hard to come by.
Here’s why Wyoming Senator John Barasso opposes the Law of the Sea.
“I look at it as a significant loss of revenue and sovereignty for the United States,” Barasso said. “That’s the way I’ve read it.”
That’s a pretty stock view of the treaty these days from Senate Republicans.
It’s puzzling to veteran Indiana Republican Richard Lugar. He’s the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and has seen it stall twice in less in recent years. Every committee member voted in favor in 2004; four opposed in 2007.
So, to Lugar: Is the sovereignty argument gaining traction?
“I frankly don’t know,” Lugar said. “There are a number of think tanks and groups right now that are not in favor of international treaties, and they have persuaded a number of members to see to their wishes.”
One of those think tanks is the influential Heritage Foundation. Just blocks from the Capitol it pushes conservative causes in Congress.
And it helped craft the letter of opposition that dozens of Republicans signed onto. Stephen Groves works on international law at Heritage.
“We don’t want to be subject to baseless international lawsuits,” Groves said. “That violates our sovereignty. We don’t want to share the wealth of our OCS with the developing world under terms we can’t control.”
“That’s a violation of our sovereignty.”
And you hear that very refrain circulating through Republican ranks in the Senate.
Idaho Senator Jim Risch says he’s actually read the 200-plus page treaty and one provision jumps out at him more than the rest. One, that he says, would force the U.S. to accede to international environmental agreements, both current and future.
“Meaning if you sign this, you’re buying yourself Kyoto and all sorts of future unknown treaties,” Risch said.
The Kyoto Protocol is a binding UN agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. has not signed on to it.
“I was the United States ambassador in negotiating it,” John Norton Moore said, referring to the Law of the Sea. “Appointed by President Ronald Reagan on the Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, I basically worked under, and served under, and followed the instructions of three Republican presidents.”
“And I find myself astounded at why my party is in opposition to the treaty.”
As the United States negotiator on the treaty he’s an ardent supporter of ratification. And he says his party is running a war of misinformation on hot button issues – like environmental ones – issues that rally the party faithful.
Moore says the claim that the Law of the Sea would force the U.S. into the Kyoto Protocol is an outright lie. Another concern, that the United States would have to share its revenues with other countries, he says, is a misrepresentation at best. By signing the treaty, the United States would secure a bargaining spot at the International Seabed Authority.
“And that seat on the council carries the blocking ability over a number of issue, including amendments, including rules and regulations, and including distribution of funds,” Moore said.
In Moore’s words, the U.S. would win more access to minerals than any other country in the world.
And yet opponents say the gains just are not worth giving up rights and freedoms.
“I respect that view; I don’t think it’s the case. I think it can be fixed to ensure that’s not the case,” McCain said.
Arizona Senator John McCain says he wants the treaty to pass, though in his words, it’s dead for now. And Groves, who is organizing the opposition, says there is no way the treaty could be amended to address the sovereignty concerns.
There is a sign that when the treaty does return, the opposing arguments may be a bit more nuanced.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who’s reportedly on the short list to be the Republican vice-presidential pick released his own letter of opposition with more specific concerns.
“The litigation risks to the United States outweigh the potential benefits,” Portman said. “And we’ve been able to work out on a bilateral basis, in terms of the Arctic for instance, with Russia, with Canada – good arrangements.”
Meaning the US doesn’t need the treaty. We can work with countries directly, like the U.S. has done with Canada and Mexico over claims to the outer continental shelf.
Supporters won’t let it die – and the list of them is long, including all the living former Republican Secretaries of State. With Arctic drilling set to begin in earnest soon, mixed with a prospect of a Senate with even fewer moderates next year, advocates say now is a better time than ever to ratify the treaty.