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POLITICS-US: Bush Endorses Law of the Sea Treaty

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 16 2007 (IPS) - After maintaining a six-and-a-half year silence, President George W. Bush is urging the U.S. Senate to ratify the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) before the end of his term in office.

In a statement released by the White House Tuesday, Bush said that “joining the 25-year-old treaty will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed services (and) secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain.”

The statement, which was issued after a protracted internal review, opens the way for swift action by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to recommend ratification by the entire Senate.

The Committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden, who called just last week for Bush to publicly endorse the treaty, pledged Wednesday to work closely with Bush and the Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, to take up the treaty “in the coming months”.

Lugar, a long-time UNCLOS champion, said approval was “overdue… We’ve been a free rider on this treaty for too long,” he noted in a lengthy statement released shortly after Bush’s announcement. “At a time when the United States is being criticised by friends and foes alike as either a Lone Ranger or worse, an arrogant bully, we can demonstrate that we believe international cooperation, done right, can serve America’s interests.

“By embracing a treaty that we championed and that improves our national security, we can help counter the prejudices that America is an unreliable partner or a threat to world order,” he wrote.

The treaty, which establishes a legal regime for virtually all human uses of the high seas, including the delineation of territorial waters, navigation rights, research, environmental protection, fisheries, and mining of the seabed, took effect in 1994 after it was ratified by the requisite 60 countries, including all of Washington’s western allies.

Initiated by the United States in the late 1960s, the treaty took nearly 15 years to negotiate; yet, when it was concluded in 1982, the administration of President Ronald Reagan declined to sign it, objecting to the seabed-mining provisions in Section 11 that declared the deep seabed part of the “common heritage of mankind” and empowering a global body to oversee the mining regime.

In particular, the new International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was to be financed in part from royalties paid by deep-sea miners, could require companies engaged in deep-sea mining to share their technology with developing countries. The administration also objected that ISA’s governing mechanisms would not give the U.S. the voting power that it felt was necessary to defend its interests.

The Reagan administration’s right-wing supporters denounced the treaty as socialistic, an effort to build “world government” that threatened U.S. sovereignty and private enterprise, and a “third-world giveaway”.

In the late 1980s, however, negotiations to address Washington’s concerns got underway. They culminated in 1994 with an amended Section 11 that eliminated the technology-transfer provisions and gave Washington effective veto power over the ISA’s major policy decisions. Then-President Bill Clinton signed the treaty shortly afterward.

In the wake of the Republican landslide in Congressional elections that year, however, arch-unilateralist Jesse Helms took over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Despite repeated urgings over the following years not only by Clinton, but also by some fellow-Republicans, such as Lugar, and the Navy, which has been an UNCLOS supporter from the very beginning, Helms refused to take up the treaty for ratification, arguing that it threatened U.S. national sovereignty and freedom of action.

During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush had indicated support for the treaty. Faced with persistent right-wing opposition after his election, however, Bush referred the issue to an inter-agency review that was deliberately delayed by opponents, reportedly including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and some White House political advisers who, among other things, argued that the issue was not sufficiently important to warrant a presidential statement.

“Bush has been supportive pretty much since he took office,” according to Scott Paul, an analyst at Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), a pro-U.N. lobby group. “The challenge has been to get the words coming out of his mouth.”

In 2004, the Foreign Relations Committee, under Lugar’s chairmanship, voted unanimously to recommend UNCLOS’ ratification to the full Senate. But, with Bush unwilling to speak out, Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist refused to bring it to the floor.

Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s explicit endorsement during her 2005 Senate confirmation hearings, as well as appeals by her predecessor, Colin Powell, and many other former senior Republican cabinet officials, the Senate leadership refused to budge.

“It’s like the Loch Ness monster rising up out of the mist,” complained one far-right senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, when the issue was raised that year. “(UNCLOS) is breathtaking in scope. It’s reckless for a great nation like the United States to politely sign on to this.”

That reaction was echoed by Sessions’ ideological soul-mates again this week in anticipation of Bush’s statement.

“Our one million members and supporters across the America will be happy to remind this president and this treaty’s advocates on Capitol Hill that conservatives will not stand for this or any concession of American sovereignty,” said David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, who called Bush’s position “perplexing (and) dangerous.”

Frank Gaffney, president of the neo-conservative Centre for Security Policy, also warned of serious political consequences if Bush’s endorsement resulted in ratification.

“(It) will win him few friends among his enemies… (and) will, however, cost him dearly among those who have steadfastly supported him, but are dead-set against the Transnational Progressives and their agenda,” he wrote in the Washington Times. “One would think that a man with an approval rating below 30 percent would not be so cavalier with what remains of his base, especially on behalf of so dubious an enterprise…”

But, with a Democratic Congress, a more-realist leadership at the Pentagon, and an energised environmental movement, as well as a more pragmatic Senate Republican leadership, Bush’s endorsement virtually ensures Senate ratification once Biden launches the process.

“President Bush has teed it up,” according to Paul. “All Senator Biden has to do now is swing for the fences. If he does, U.S. ocean and foreign policy will be considerably stronger, and a handful of out-of-touch, ultra-conservative senators will look much, much weaker.”

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