By Lauren Weiss
Despite the United States’ vital role in crafting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s and amending it in 1994, the treaty has never come to a vote in the Senate. Commonly called the Law of the Sea Treaty, it outlines the rules governing maritime activity, covering issues such as navigational rights, territorial sea limits, and economic jurisdiction over various resources.
Following attempts made under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the Obama administration has also expressed a desire to get this treaty passed. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations John Kerry (D-Mass.) held a series of hearings this past May and June with high profile advocates of the treaty, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and other top military, government, and business leaders. These witnesses made a serious, compelling presentation on the economic and security benefits of the treaty, which include protecting the U.S.’ exclusive economic right to one million square kilometers of the extended continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, providing a new diplomatic tool to help resolve competing claims in the South China Sea, and establishing rules to govern new waterways forming in the Arctic, among others.
Although the treaty enjoys a broad spectrum of support—from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the President of American Petroleum Institute Jack N. Gerard––a small but vocal group of opponents have been lobbying senators to block the treaty, claiming that the royalties companies would have to pay and potential environmental lawsuits the United States could face would result in a loss of U.S. sovereignty.
Thirty-one Republican senators have signed a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), promising to oppose the treaty if it comes to a vote. On July 16, 2012, Senator Johhny Isakson (R-GA) sent a letter to Kerry promising to vote against the treaty.
The same day, two potential Republican vice-presidential picks – Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) — sent their own letter to Reid expressing their opposition to the treaty. With a total of thirty-four senators leaning against the treaty, opponents of the treaty claim they have succeeded in blocking ratification, which requires a two-thirds Senate majority for approval.
Senator Kerry’s spokeswoman Jodi Seth, on the other hand, said that the Foreign Relations Committee Chairman was not surprised by the letters, since “it’s not news to anyone that right now we’re in the middle of a white hot political campaign season where ideology is running in overdrive.”
Seth went on to explain that Kerry had purposely decided not to schedule a vote before the elections in November so that the senators would have “the chance to evaluate the treaty on the facts and the merits away from the politics of the moment.”
Seth said Kerry believes that Senate approval of the Law of the Sea Treaty is “a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.”
What is clear is that it is unclear when and if this treaty will come to a vote during the lame-duck session of Congress or some time after. How the Senate handles the Law of the Sea Treaty may influence the course of the debate on other common sense treaties that are due for reconsideration by the Senate, including arms control treaties that are due for consideration or reconsideration by the Senate some time next year, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.