Time to Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty

US sailors, civilian and military, need guaranteed freedom of movement in international waters

IN October 1994, President Clinton submitted the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to the United States Senate for its advice and consent. In his transmittal letter, the president noted: "Since the 1960s, the basic US strategy has been to conclude a comprehensive treaty on the law of the sea which will be respected by all countries."

Forwarding the convention, along with the companion agreement modifying Part XI, represented a firm commitment by the administration to keep this treaty the cornerstone of US oceans policy. For the past 18 months, this important treaty has been stuck in Congress.

My operational background as a former squadron and ship commander, and most recently as an amphibious ready- group commander and chief of staff for a carrier battle group, convinces me that any further delay in accession to the convention damages our international credibility and dramatically complicates the security equation for those of us who operate naval forces at sea.

The US now has an unprecedented window of opportunity to realize a vital strategic goal of US oceans policy - the international acceptance of a comprehensive codification of the law of the sea, which preserves traditional freedoms of navigation and overflight essential to our national defense and economic well-being.

Two factors have created a unique and valuable window of opportunity for the emergence of an internationally accepted law of the sea. First, despite the broad participation and international consensus that led to the 1982 convention (signed by 158 nations), fundamental philosophic and economic divisions thwarted a universally acceptable oceans regime. The ideological, political, and economic issues that drove the US to reject the convention, however, have now been swept away by the dramatic changes in the global arena since 1982.

Second, intensive negotiations resulted in a July 1994 agreement that substantially changes the convention's Part XI, the section concerning deep- seabed mining, to which the US and most Western nations objected. The amended convention gives the US at least as much - and perhaps more - than it originally sought in the area of deep-seabed mining.

A treaty we need

This convention is no longer a treaty that we could not live with. It is one that we should not try to live without. From a national-security perspective, in particular, there are compelling reasons for the US to accede to the treaty.

First, the changing global-security environment places an increasing premium on freedom of the seas and maritime flexibility. Seaborne commerce today exceeds 3.5 billion tons annually and accounts for more than 80 percent of international trade. More than 95 percent of US import and export trade is transported by sea. Almost 50 percent of US petroleum products are imported, and more than 20 percent of our gross national product is traded overseas. Recent agreements under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement promise to intensify this commerce.

As the world's leading maritime power and de facto leader of the global maritime coalition, the US must advocate strongly the ability of all nations' ships and aircraft to move freely on, over, and under the sea anywhere as an internationally recognized legal right. The convention guarantees this mobility and flexibility by reaffirming and codifying traditional freedoms of navigation and overflight.

Second, without international respect for the freedoms of navigation and overflight set forth in the convention, US and allied military forces may arrive too late to make a difference. For example, if prevented from transiting through the Melaccan Straits a naval carrier battle group transiting from Yokosuka, Japan, to Bahrain would have to reroute around Australia. Assuming a steady pace, a six-ship conventionally powered battle group would need 15 more days and more than 94,000 gallons of fuel to transit the additional 5,800 nautical miles.

Third, a smaller US Navy, a result of the overall downsizing of the US military, shoulders the lion's share of the responsibility to enforce US desires. The Navy had only 367 ships at the end of 1995. The Clinton administration's Future Years Defense Plan projects a Navy of just more than 300 ships at the end of this century.

These reduced forces will significantly limit our ability to address challenges by the growing navies of a host of nations to the unhampered use of the oceans, and make it even more imperative that the US operate within a stable maritime environment.

Fourth, the US Freedom of Navigation Program faces growing political, economic, and military costs in the face of new excessive maritime claims by an increasing number of states. This program, initiated in 1979 by the Carter administration, combines diplomatic action and operational assertion of our navigational rights to discourage state claims inconsistent with international law as reflected in the convention. On the diplomatic front, the State Department has filed more than 100 protests of maritime claims inconsistent with the treaty. Since 1979, US military ships and aircraft have exercised navigational rights and freedoms in all oceans against the excessive claims of more than 50 countries. The scope of this program alone makes it highly desirable for the US to decrease the number of contentious ocean issues.

A question of leadership

Finally, the US position as the world's leading maritime power argues for US accession to the convention. US refusal to accept a treaty widely regarded as one of the most important agreements ever negotiated would raise fundamental questions about the future legal regime for the world's oceans, and about US leadership in promoting international law and order. Most important, by remaining outside the convention, the US would not be in a position to influence its further development and interpretation as it goes through a critical period of transition and refinement.

When all is said and done, as a maritime nation the United States has the most to gain from stability in laws governing use of the seas. Stability over the long term can best be ensured by a widely ratified law-of-the-sea convention that is likely to increase order and predictability, enhance adaptation to new circumstances, narrow the scope of disputes to more-manageable proportions, and provide a means to resolve them.

Now is the time to act. The convention entered into force on Nov. 16, 1994. By the end of 1995, 83 states had ratified or acceded to it, including Germany, Italy, Greece, and Australia. Most other major industrialized nations have pledged to ratify by the end of this year. The governments that have ratified or acceded - or that have pledged to do so soon - represent 70 percent of the world's population and 83 percent of the world's gross domestic product.

Remaining on the outside looking in at a completed treaty process is not in our best interests. Those of us in senior positions in the Navy take America's sons and daughters to sea and put them in harm's way. We owe it to them to make the oceans they sail on more ordered and less contentious and to replace, wherever possible, the application of force with the rule of law.

Viewed in this context, the need for immediate action by the Senate is indeed compelling.

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