Wednesday, October 31, 2007

SFRC: Law of the Sea Vote Today

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on the Law of the Sea Convention today. (It will also vote on a number of other pending treaties.) There is little doubt that the Committee will vote to favorably report the Convention. But what matters more, as the New York Times points out in an editorial in today's paper, is that the vote be overwhelming. Why? Because Senate Majority Leader Reid is reluctant to put the Convention to a vote in the full Senate unless he is confident it will receive significant bipartisan support. That is, he doesn't want a ratified Convention to become a partisan weapon in future elections. The Washington Post also editorializes today in favor of the treaty. Here is the Times's editorial followed by that of the Post:

On one side of the issue lies a coalition of odd but powerful political bedfellows: President Bush, the environmental community, the military, the oil, shipping and fishing industries and the top Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the other side lies a handful of cranky right-wingers. Yet the issue - Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea - remains unsettled, just as it has been for a quarter of a century.

The United Nations approved the Law of the Sea in 1982. It governs uses of the world’s oceans, establishing ground rules for everything from navigation to deep seabed mining. It is all fairly common-sensical stuff, but for years opponents have charged that the treaty threatens American sovereignty. And for years, Senate leaders have decided that it is not worth the fight.

Now it most certainly is. The steady retreat of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean - caused largely by global warming - has opened up an inaccessible part of the world to shipping and potentially vast deposits of oil, natural gas and mineral resources. This, in turn, has touched off a scramble among nations to determine who owns what on the ocean floor. Unless the United States ratifies the treaty, it will not have a seat at the table when it comes time to sort out competing claims.

Today, the treaty will face yet another critical moment in its long and troubled life when the Foreign Relations Committee votes on whether to send it to the floor. The vote is expected to favor the treaty. But the task facing the Democratic chairman, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and the ranking Republican member, Richard Lugar of Indiana, is to produce not just a favorable vote but an overwhelming vote sufficient to persuade the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to finally move on ratification.

There are many other reasons besides oil and gas to ratify this worthy document, not least the fact that it would allow the United States to play a leadership role on a whole range of global ocean issues, including overfishing and pollution. But the possibility of losing out on some major underseas discoveries at a time when oil is approaching $100 a barrel should make even the most reluctant senators take notice.

And the Post:

One of the hoariest debates in Washington concerns the Law of the Sea Convention, a pact the United States helped to write 30 years ago and then refused to ratify - initially because President Ronald Reagan was opposed. Mr. Reagan's objections to the treaty's regulation of seabed mining were addressed when the treaty was renegotiated in 1994, but still the Senate refused to ratify, succumbing to alarmist conservative rhetoric about "global government." For most of his tenure, President Bush has deferred to ideologues in his administration who object to virtually all treaties. But that posturing is threatening to severely damage U.S. economic and security interests. Mr. Bush now favors the treaty, which will be voted on today by the Foreign Relations Committee. We hope the committee and the full Senate will approve it.

By now the array of treaty supporters is vast, ranging from environmentalists to oil, fishing and shipping companies to the U.S. military - not to mention most previous Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, including Mr. Reagan's stalwart, George P. Shultz. One reason is the U.S. interest in undersea territories in the warming Arctic that could contain billions of barrels of oil, among other resources, as well as newly opening sea lanes. Russia, Denmark and Canada are making bold claims to Arctic territories - claims that will be adjudicated by an international tribunal. Without joining the treaty, the United States can neither win recognition for its own potential claims to hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory off the coast of Alaska nor directly contest those of others.

Senators who would injure U.S. interests on such a scale to ward off world government are being cheered on by a handful of conservative think tanks and law professors who advance alarming-sounding but improbable claims. Perhaps the most notable of these is that ratification would hamstring the administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, which is aimed at stopping traffic in weapons of mass destruction by, among other means, intercepting ships. Some argue that international courts would be empowered to decide whether the Navy could seize contraband centrifuges. But the treaty contains an exception for military activity, and the United States can opt out of provisions that might give jurisdiction to courts. The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that ratification would strengthen the PSI.

A decade or two ago, the United States could afford to indulge its more irrational fears about one-worldism. But the price is rising steadily. The Senate needs to promptly ratify the Law of the Sea treaty to protect concrete and purely American economic and security interests.