The controversial U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty got an enthusiastic thumbs-up Wednesday from the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who voted 17-4 to send the treaty to the full Senate for ratification.
The vote came as Pentagon officials rallied for the treaty, calling fears about ceding U.S. sovereignty to the United Nations unfounded.
At an intimate roundtable discussion held for a handful of media representatives, Vice Admiral John G. Morgan, Jr., deputy chief of Naval Operations, told Newsmax he was happy about the Foreign Relations vote, and was looking forward to getting Senate approval for the convention that controls how nations transit “seven-tenths of the earth’s surface.”
Morgan says UNCLOS has been unfairly cloaked in a “Halloween costume” by detractors who have claimed for years that signing the treaty will compromise sovereignty.
“This sovereignty issue is simply not grounded in fact,” adds Morgan, a former senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England.
The U.S. participation in the treaty, which has been signed by 154 other nations, has been hanging fire since 1982 when concerns about deep-sea mining rights scuttled the issue during the Ronald Reagan administration.
Morgan says that, at the time, Reagan made it plain that but for that flaw, he was committed to a multilateral ocean’s regime and that the treaty protected commercial and national security interests of the U.S.
President Bush, the defense department, and the state department all favor signing the treaty.
Rear Admiral Bruce MacDonald, the judge advocate general of the Navy concedes the sovereignty issue is still alive, but is grounded in two major misconceptions.
MacDonald claims detractors are hung up on the logo of the treaty - that part linking it to the United Nations. “It’s really a misnomer,” MacDonald says. “What we have here is a true multi-lateral treaty” that is not inexorably tied to the world body.
The Navy’s chief lawyer also claims that the language of the treaty does not commit disputes about U.S. “military activities” - such as sea maneuvers - to such bodies as the International Court of Justice.
“Each state may opt out of the dispute resolution,” MacDonald says.
Both Morgan and MacDonald say there is nothing to loose, and much to gain, by getting the U.S. aboard the treaty.
MacDonald says the U.S. has been depending on conventions it signed back in 1958 coupled with the fickle law and custom of the sea.
“We’ve entered a new maritime age,” says Morgan, where it is getting more and more difficult to maneuver the world’s most powerful military around the globe from “outside the treaty.”
Furthermore, Morgan contends, the U.S., as a non-party to the broader sea treaty, has been hampered in getting nations to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, the international effort led by the United States to intercept the transfer of banned weapons and weapons technology.
Not being a part of UNCLOS puts the U.S. at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with nations who practice what is known as “creeping jurisdiction” – taking control of sea lanes far from their shores.
As a signatory of the treaty the U.S. could do more than send the fleet to show the flag in protest, MacDonald argues.
MacDonald points to Operation Iraqi Freedom as an example of how vital sea approaches can be in thrusting U.S. power overseas. In 2003, Turkey denied permission for U.S. air forces to transit Turkish airspace in striking Iraq. “We will be increasingly looking to the oceans,” the admiral says.
MacDonald pointed to the treaty’s allowances for so-called “transit” passage through “choke” points like straits.
MacDonald and Morgan also discussed how the treaty’s 200-mile designation offshore was vital to protecting oil, mineral and fishing rights.
Captain Chuck Michel of the Coast Guard was also on hand at the roundtable to explain how the treaty was vital to his service’s law enforcement duties.
He explained that the Convention limits a nation’s territorial sea to 12 nautical miles, beyond which all nations enjoy the freedom to engage in law enforcement activities:
“The Coast Guard relies upon these freedoms to conduct extensive maritime interdictions – including of illicit drug traffickers…”
Michel points to the importance of the treaty’s 24-mile contiguous zone in facilitating the Coast Guard operations to interdict foreign flag vessels off the U.S. coast for violations of customs, immigration, fiscal, and sanitary laws.
In a recent letter to Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, four formers Commandants of the Coast Guard wrote:
“It is high time the United States got off the sidelines and joined the Law of the Sea Convention. Joining would not only increase the ability of the Coast Guard to carry out its multiple maritime missions, but would enhance the ability of the United States to guarantee its national security and economic rights.”
But the convention still faces stiff opposition from Senate Republicans who contend it would subject U.S. military and economic interests to a hostile international bureaucracy.
"I am absolutely convinced it undermines U.S. sovereignty," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told a recent news conference of GOP opponents. "This treaty will not be adopted," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "There aren't the votes to pass it."
Treaties must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
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