(CNSNews.com) – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee began the latest round in a decades-long fight to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, with supporters in the Obama administration and the military squaring off against Republican opponents on Wednesday.
“I am well aware that this treaty does have determined opposition, limited, but nevertheless quite vociferous,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the committee. “And it’s unfortunate because it’s opposition based in ideology and mythology, not in facts, evidence, or the consequences of our continuing failure to accede to the treaty.”
The treaty's opponents include Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who criticized a provision that would mandate that the United States pay a portion of oil, gas, and seabed mining royalties conducted in deep ocean water – beyond 200 nautical miles from U.S. shores – to the international board that governs the treaty.
Inhofe said United States could possibly lose billions of dollars in royalties as oil companies begin drilling farther and farther offshore.
“The problem is outside of the 200 nautical miles [offshore],” Inhofe said. “Whether we say it’s an arrangement or a tax – I think it’s a tax, since it costs money.”
Inhofe cited the work of the U.S. Interagency Extended Continental Shelf Task Force – a government group whose mission is to map the area off U.S. coasts beyond 200 nautical miles – that estimates mineral wealth in the billions to trillions of dollars.
Inhofe objected to the Law of the Sea treaty’s royalty provisions on the grounds that it would deprive the United States of billions in royalties via a new international tax.
“I’ve read the work of the U.S. Interagency Extended Continental Shelf Task Force and the briefs and sources there talking about how to quantify the amount of money we would be losing,” he said. “This is the first time in history that an international organization – the U.N. in this case – would possess taxing authority over this country.”
Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) responded to Sen. Inhofe’s objection by pointing out that the United States would possess a permanent veto power over the actions of the international body that would control those royalty payments: the International Seabed Authority (ISA).
Kerry also pointed out that U.S. oil and gas companies support the Law of the Sea treaty and are willing to pay the international royalties.
“They [oil companies] signed on to these royalties, which are far less than the royalties that they pay today, to us, in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere,” said Kerry. “And they [would] pay them into an international entity that we will have a veto over as to where and how it will be spent.”
Another point of opposition came from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who asked why the United States needed to ratify the treaty in the first place, given that its unrivaled naval power already granted it free travel over the world’s oceans.
“On one hand I think we’re arguing that we need this for our military to operate freely around the world in a rules-based system, and then I hear the treaty allows us on the military or defense front to completely opt-out of this thing anytime we want,” DeMint said. “So, why do we need to get into all of this in order to operate our navy as we have for years around the world?”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that the military would be better served under a system of defined international laws at sea than under the current system of customary international law, which he pointed out are not written down but based on the common practices of other countries.
“Right now our freedoms of navigation … are codified in international customary law. I’m not comfortable with that any longer,” he said. “[T]he way that the security in the maritime domain is being challenged by some of the rising powers, by the opening of the Arctic, and other areas around the world where that customary international law is now being subjected to individual [countries’] interpretations.”
Customary international law is a branch of international law that is based on the common practice of countries around the world and is often not as clearly defined as formal international law codified through treaties.
The Law of the Sea treaty was originally finalized in the 1980’s and was rejected by President Ronald Reagan over concerns that it would cede U.S. sovereignty to the ISA and that it could force the United States to hand over sensitive technology to Soviet-allied states. The treaty was amended in 1994 to accommodate lingering U.S. concerns about sovereignty and the royalties issue. It was submitted for ratification by President Bill Clinton and labeled an urgent international matter by President George W. Bush.
Despite having the support of both Republican and Democratic presidents, former Secretaries of State, the U.S. military, and the business community, the treaty has never been brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
The treaty would codify long-standing customary international law on the rights of free passage of the seas and countries’ economic claims in offshore waters. It would also establish new Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) extending out 200 nautical miles offshore, granting states exclusive economic development rights within these new boundaries.
It would also regulate commerce outside of the new EEZs in what is known as the Extended Continental Shelf via the International Seabed Authority based in Kingston, Jamaica.
Despite not having ratified the treaty, the United States accepts all but the International Seabed Authority (ISA) provisions as binding international law, including the claim to development rights up to 200 nautical miles offshore.