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Law of The Sea Treaty Continues to Garner Widespread Support


A wide array of organizations and individuals from the labor community, defense establishment, private sector and diplomatic corps is giving strong support for the U.S. to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as UNCLOS.

In a series of hearings conducted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cabinet officials, flag officers, business leaders and others are stating why ratification is needed.

During a May hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Army General Martin Dempsey (the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated emphatically that important national security interests would be advanced if Congress were to approve the treaty.

Panetta noted, “I strongly believe that (ratification of) this treaty is absolutely essential, not only to our economic interests and our diplomatic interests, but I’m here to say that it is extremely important to our national security interests as well. I join a lot of the military voices of the past and present that have spoken so strongly in support of this treaty.”

Dempsey joined a long line of military figures in outlining his support for the treaty. Among those who have endorsed ratification are retired Army General Colin Powell (who among his many duties served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then Secretary of State), retired Coast Guard Commandment Admiral Thad Allen and retired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark.

Dempsey testified, “(The treaty) reinforces the sovereign immunity of our warships as they conduct operations.”

Moreover, he added, America’s continued failure to adopt the treaty “plays into the hands of foreign states that seek to bend customary law to restrict movement on the oceans.  And, it puts our warships and aircraft ‘on point’ to constantly challenge claims.”

While some opponents have argued that UNCLOS is innately hostile to U.S. strategic interests, or, at best, utterly beside the point, Clinton put that notion to rest. Calling ratification “imperative,” she observed, “No country is better served by this convention than the United States. As the world’s foremost maritime power, we benefit from the convention’s favorable freedom of navigation provisions. As the country with the world’s second-longest coastline, we benefit from its provisions on offshore nature resources.”

In June, the head of the U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force General William Fraser III, stated, “In today’s environment, we assess our navigation and over-flight rights through customary international law. To secure better global access, joining the Law of the Sea Convention would provide a solid legal foundation to our military and commercial partners that transport the lifeline of supplies and equipment to our warfighters around the globe.”

Joining Fraser on that panel was Navy Admiral James A. Winnefeld, who serves as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Winnefeld told the senators that becoming party to the convention would protect the U.S. from “ongoing and persistent efforts on the part of a number of nations, including those with growing economic and military power, to advance their national laws and set precedents that could restrict our maritime activities, particularly within the bounds of their exclusive economic zones.”

The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), to which several MTD affiliates are members, has long supported ratification. ITF Seafarers Section Chair David Heindel, who also serves as Secretary-Treasurer of the Seafarers International Union of North America, said, “Passage of the Law of the Sea treaty is important to the U.S.-flag merchant fleet and its mariners as it provides a uniform measure of laws and protection in ports around the world.”

In a June 10 posting on the Atlantic website, Stewart M. Patrick called on the U.S. to ratify the treaty. Patrick, a senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations wrote, “The treaty’s primary value to the U.S. military is that it establishes clear rights, duties, and jurisdictions of maritime states. The treaty defines the limits of a country’s ‘territorial sea,’ establishes rules for transit through ‘international straits,’ and defines exclusive economic zones in a way compatible with freedom of navigation and over-flight.

“Some have argued that UNCLOS has already become ‘customary international law,’ and thus the United States has little to gain from formal accession. But custom and practice are far more malleable and subject to interpretation.”

The United States played an active role when UNCLOS was negotiated in 1982. It was modified and became effective in 1994 after 60 nations ratified it. Today the convention has been ratified by 162 countries. It includes individual protections for mariners, and it spells out the duties and responsibilities of flag states. It addresses related topics including general conservation, protection of the sea’s living resources, sovereignty, navigational rights and more.

The MTD is part of a coalition of labor, maritime, business, military, governmental and environmental interests supporting the treaty and its adoption.

In a statement passed at the department’s 2012 Executive Board meeting, the MTD pointed out, “In addition to numerous other organizations, both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO also are on record as supporting ratification. Brothers and sisters, when the federation and the Chamber of Commerce agree on something, it’s got to be a slam dunk.”

According to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, the body will hold additional hearings. Passage of UNCLOS has bipartisan support in the Senate, but needs a two-thirds vote in favor to be adopted.



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