Law of the Sea on the Move in U.S. Senate

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week digs into the major treaty governing international waters: the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The panel will meet Thursday to hear testimony from senior diplomatic and military officials in support of the treaty, which is one of the few issues now in play on Capitol Hill on which Democrats and the Bush administration are in agreement.

Described by many as a "constitution for the oceans," the Law of the Sea provides for a comprehensive framework for navigating and managing the world's oceans. It delineates offshore jurisdictions, including a 200-mile exclusive economic zone that countries can manage at their discretion, and outlines a comprehensive marine protection program with requirements for marine environmental assessments and enforcement of species protection measures. It would allow countries to apply to extract natural resources outside the 200-mile limit.

More than 150 nations, along with the European Commission, have ratified the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994. In the United States, mining interests, the oil and gas industry, the Navy, and the Defense and State departments have thrown their support to the treaty. Ratification requires approval by the Foreign Relations Committee, a floor vote and the signature of the president.

Still, conservative opposition to the treaty lingers, with critics arguing that the Law of the Sea would leave U.S. military operations vulnerable to oversight by an international tribunal created by the treaty -- despite statements to the contrary by senior Bush administration officials who have said the treaty would ensure U.S. ships are free to navigate in international waters, including warships and military support ships (Greenwire, July 18).

"As the world's pre-eminent maritime power, leader in the war on terrorism, and nation with the largest exclusive economic zone, the United States should accede to the Law of the Sea Convention during this session of Congress," outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace and Vice Chairman E.P. Giambastiani wrote in a June letter to the chairman of the Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.). "No country has a greater interest in public order for the world's oceans. Becoming a party to the convention will ensure our leadership role in the continuing development of oceans law and policy."

The latest push to ratify the Law of the Sea came in May when President Bush issued a strongly worded statement that asked the Senate to move expeditiously to approve the treaty, leading the Foreign Relations Committee to announce Thursday's hearing and a planned follow-up early in October. On the second hearing, lawmakers will hear from non-governmental organizations and representatives of oceans industries.

Officials with groups that follow oceans issues, including the Joint Oceans Commission Initiative and the Pew Charitable Trusts, have been optimistic in recent months about the treaty's chances for passage.

"There is no reason we can't get the Law of the Sea enacted in this Congress," JOCI co-chairman Leon Panetta told a Capitol Hill panel in June, reiterating the often-heard contention that the Law of the Sea would pass "95-5" if it could get to a floor vote in the Senate (Greenwire, June 6).

That does not mean there are not potential stumbling blocks as the treaty moves to the Senate floor, among them a handful of conservative senators who many believe were key in preventing the Law of the Sea from reaching a floor vote during the last push for ratification, in the 108th Congress. Chief among them is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has already announced his intention to use "whatever means it takes" to prevent a floor vote on the Law of the Sea in this Congress.

"I would be opposed just as much now as I was in the past," Inhofe said in May, shortly after the president issued his statement calling for Senate action. "Nothing has changed." Still, treaty advocates will likely be helped by recent diplomatic developments. As polar ice has receded to record lows in recent months, Arctic countries have moved quickly to stake claims on potential new shipping routes -- including the long-sought Northwest Passage linking Europe and Asia -- and seabed areas that may contain significant mineral deposits.

Tensions reached a high point in August, when Russian explorers planted a Russian flag on the seabed 2.5 miles below the ice of the North Pole in an effort to stake a claim to the resource-rich area. In response, the Canadian military announced plans to build its first Arctic deep-sea port in the Northwest Passage, the United States launched a scientific mission to map the Arctic sea floor, and Denmark sent an icebreaker to the area.

Schedule: The hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 27, at 2:30 p.m. in 419 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Patrick Walsh.

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