Report from Governmental Affairs

Troubled Waters

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The U.N. convention on the Law of the Sea is riding a wave of support among in­terested parties in the Unit­ed States and elsewhere.

The Bush administration is at the forefront of those calling for Senate ratification of the treaty. The treaty also enjoys widespread support from the oil and shipping industries, the fishing industry, ocean con­servationists, and international law enforcement and anti-terrorism organizations. The ABA has supported the treaty for the past decade.

Nevertheless, a long-awaited Senate vote to ratify the treaty may be delayed after opponents voiced concerns that some of its provisions could compromise U.S. security. Those concerns prompted more hearings this spring before the Senate committees on Armed Services, Intelli­gence, and Environment and Public Works. The Senate leadership is expected to determine by early summer whether there will be time to vote on the treaty this year.

The ABA is urging the Senate to ratify the treaty before Congress adjourns this year, maintaining that it is critical that the United States exercise leadership in promoting the rule of law and participate in the 10-year review of the convention that entered into force in 1994.

“At this moment, the timing of Senate action is important to ensure the continued leadership of the United States in what is still an evolving process of law,” stated ABA President Dennis W. Archer of Detroit in a March letter to Sen­ate Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

More than 140 nations are party to the treaty, negotiated in the 1970s and early 1980s to lay out comprehensive rules governing the oceans and their resources. The treaty contains 320 articles and nine annexes covering all aspects of ocean space and use.

Although the United States played an instrumental role in drafting the treaty, it was not until 1994 that President Clinton signed an amended version that satisfied U.S. con­cerns, especially regarding deep-seabed mining, and submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

The ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates endorsed the amended treaty in 1994. Since then, “The ABA leadership has taken an active role at every opportunity, including testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy,” says Margaret L. Tomlinson of Washington, D.C., a vice-chair of the Law of the Sea Committee in the Section of International Law and Practice.


After holding hearings last fall, the senate Foreign Relations Committee in February unanimously approved a resolution of advice and consent to ratification.

Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., a strong supporter of the Law of the Sea Treaty, maintains that ratification by the Senate now will allow the United States to participate in the 10-year review of the treaty.

“In addition,” Lugar says, “the convention’s Commis­sion on the Limits on the Continental Shelf will soon be making decisions on claims to continental shelf areas that could impact the United States’ own claims.”

Archer says in his letter to Frist that opposition to the treaty “comes from political quarters for whom any and all international obligations or rules are somehow a violation of our sovereignty rather than a legal protection of our rights.” Archer says it is “essential to U.S security interests, both past and present, that key sea and air routes remain open as a matter of international legal right to help guarantee global mobility of our armed forces.”


This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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