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U.S.: Republicans Sink Law of the Sea Ratification for Now

WASHINGTON, Jul 18 2012 (IPS) - Defying the wishes of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Navy, Republican senators have effectively halted – for now – an effort by the administration of President Barack Obama to gain ratification of the 30-year-old Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

Republicans opposed to the treaty announced late Monday that 34 senators had committed themselves to oppose it if it came to a vote, thus depriving the treaty’s supporters – both Democrats and the dwindling number of moderate Republicans – of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify treaties.

“This is Victory Day for U.S. sovereignty in the Senate,” exulted Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe late Monday. “With 34 (senators) opposed to LOST, this debate is over.”

But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry suggested that he may push the treaty again after the November elections in hopes that it can be ratified once partisan passions subside.

“Sen. Kerry has been here long enough to know that vote counts and letters are just a snapshot of where our politics are in this instant, and it’s not news to anyone that right now we’re in the middle of a white-hot political campaign season where ideology is running in overdrive,” Kerry’s spokesperson, Jodi Seth, told the influential “Cable” blog on the website.

“That’s why Sen. Kerry made it clear there wouldn’t be a vote before the election and until everyone’s had the chance to evaluate the treaty on the facts and the merits away from the politics of the moment,” she added.

Treaty advocates believe that several of the Republicans – including a couple who are reportedly being considered by Gov. Mitt Romney as his vice-presidential running-mate in November – may be persuaded to change their view after the election.

In particular, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who served as U.S. Trade Representative under former President George W. Bush, has long enjoyed the strong support of the Chamber of Commerce, which has also been among the most important proponents of the treaty.

“Once we’re out of election mode, I believe there will be a greater appetite to consider the treaty again,” said Don Kraus, who heads Citizens for Global Solutions, a grassroots group that promotes U.S. engagement with international institutions. “A final vote will be close, but we won’t know until it comes to the floor.”

The product of some 15 years of negotiations, LOST, which has been ratified by 161 countries and the European Union, sets rules governing most areas of ocean policy, including navigation and over- flight rights, exploitation of the seabed, conservation and research.

Successive administrations – both Democratic and Republican – led negotiations for the treaty from the late 1960s onward. But when completed in 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan, under pressure from big U.S. mining and energy companies, rejected it, citing its provisions for deep-sea mining, particularly its requirement that mining claims be regulated by a Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Nonetheless, Reagan ordered the government to abide by all other sections of the treaty, which amounted essentially to a codification of existing international customary and maritime international law.

In 1994, the seabed provisions of the treaty were amended to satisfy Reagan’s objections. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – the latter in his second term – subsequently supported its ratification. In 2007, it was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee by a lopsided 17-4 vote but was never sent to the floor for final action.

After Obama took office in 2009, his administration listed LOST as one of a half-dozen treaties, including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – on which Kerry is currently holding hearings – as priorities for ratification.

None, however, have yet made any headway on Capitol Hill due to opposition by Republicans, a growing number of whom have argued that international treaties unduly constrain Washington’s freedom of action in the world and threaten its sovereignty.

That was the major theme of letter written by Inhofe and signed by 30 other Republican senators to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Monday.

“We are writing to let you know that we believe this Convention reflects political, economic, and ideological assumptions which are inconsistent with American values and sovereignty,” the letter asserted.

On the same day, a 32nd senator announced his opposition to the treaty, while Portman and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte – both considered possible vice-presidential candidates – sent their own letter in which they stated, “We are simply not persuaded that decisions by the International Seabed Authority and international tribunals empowered by this treaty will be more favourable to U.S. interests than bilateral negotiations, voluntary arbitration, and other traditional means of resolving maritime issues.”

Romney himself has so far not yet taken a formal position on LOST, although in his 2008 presidential campaign said he had “concerns” about the treaty’s “giving unaccountable international institutions more power.”

At that time, he was running as a Republican moderate but has since adopted the more-unilateralist and militarist positions reminiscent of those of Bush’s first term when Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld dominated foreign policy.

Indeed, the star witness for the opposition during the Committee’s hearings on the treaty was Rumsfeld himself, while David Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff, played a key role in organising the opposition from his base at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

John Bolton, Bush’s former U.N. ambassador who joined the the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute after leaving government, has also written prolifically against the treaty.

What is particularly remarkable is the fact that many of the treaty’s supporters, notably the Chamber of Commerce and major oil, gas, and mining corporations, represent traditional strongholds of the Republican Party.

“U.S. businesses from shipping to telecommunications to offshore energy production cannot plan and invest as needed without the legal certainty that comes with Law of the Sea Treaty ratification,” warned Thomas Donohue, the Chamber’s powerful president in a full-page ad co-sponsored by the Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Petroleum Institute that ran in major publications last month.

Similarly, the U.S. Navy – traditionally the most conservative of the armed services – has long championed the treaty because of its recognition of navigation rights for warships. Its appeals on behalf of the ratification have grown increasingly urgent as a result of growing tensions between China and its neighbours in the South and East China Seas, as well as the burgeoning interest in territorial claims in the Arctic.

The treaty’s foes have argued that the enforcement of navigation rights ultimately depends on the strength of the U.S. Navy and “not on paper treaties signed at the United Nations,” as Addington recently put it.

“Americans who seek to preserve the advance the rights of Americans to use the seas should support a strong national defense, including a strong Navy that can project American power across the globe in defense of American interests,” he wrote on Heritage’s “The Foundry” blog Tuesday.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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