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Is the US Senate on the verge of ratifying Law of the Sea treaty?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic

Analysis: The Cable reports that President Barack Obama and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) are behind a renewed effort to have the Senate ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Kerry, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, has been trying to set up hearings since last year, but Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the top-ranking Republican in the committee, wanted to delay hearings until after his primary.

Some conservative quarters fiercely oppose the treaty, believing that ratification would weaken American sovereignty.

Consequently, it seems that Lugar believed that if he pushed for the treaty's ratification, it could have hampered his re-election campaign.

Yet Lugar lost his primary, so now Kerry is free to begin arranging hearings. According to the Cable, the first will be a "24-star hearing," with six four-star military officers. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is also expected to testify.

'Time to assert role as global leader'

He recently voiced his support for the treaty at the Law of the Sea Symposium last week, where he remarked in his speech:

"The time has come for the United States to have a seat at the table, to fully assert its role as a global leader, and accede to this important treaty. It is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain."

Support for ratification of UNCLOS is also strong from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the military, industry, and many Democrats and Republicans. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1994 (only for the Senate not to ratify it), and President Bush supported it as well.

Today's administration is particularly keen on ratifying the treaty in order to give the U.S. an upper hand in mediating disputes in the South China Sea and keeping the Strait of Hormuz open. The U.S. would also be able to exercise support for freedom of navigation of the seas through treaty law rather than by relying on customary international law.

UNCLOS plays major roles in world's regions

While territorial and maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea between countries like China and the Philippines make the headlines and constitute some of the main reasons for the administration to prioritize ratification now, it is also looking to other regions of the world where UNCLOS will play a major role, namely the Arctic. Panetta said in his speech,

Accession would ensure our ability to reap the benefits of the opening of the Arctic -- a region of increasingly important maritime security and economic interest. We already see countries that are posturing for new shipping routes and natural resources as Arctic ice cover melts and recedes. The Convention is the only means for international recognition and acceptance of our extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic, and we are the only Arctic nation that is not party to the Convention. Accession would also preserve our navigation and over-flight rights throughout the Arctic, and strengthen our arguments for freedom of navigation through the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route.

Final Arctic state to ratify treaty

The U.S. would be the final Arctic littoral state to ratify the treaty. Norway did so in 1996, Russia in 1997, Canada in 1999, and Denmark in 2004.

The U.S. has been working to map its Arctic seafloor for some time, so it would not be terribly far behind in submitting its claims once it ratifies UNCLOS. The Arctic Council and UNCLOS are two of the most important forums for multilateral discussion and resolution of issues in the circumpolar north.

For the U.S. to not be a party to the latter weakens, rather than strengthens, its sovereignty in the Arctic. Furthermore, along with the other four littoral states, the U.S. has already expressed support for the treaty. The Ilulissat Declaration of May 2008 expresses:

Notably, the Law of the Sea provides for important rights and obligations concerning the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, including ice-covered areas, freedom of navigation, marine scientific research, and other uses of the sea. We remain committed to this legal framework and to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.

The U.S. will not be truly committed to UNCLOS, though, until it ratifies the treaty. As the issues in the Arctic grow more complex and necessitate multilateral solutions, it becomes more important for the Senate to ratify it soon.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.