The ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty by the USA set on the table

Nikos Meletis

Copyright: Epikaira Magazine (31/05-06/2012)

Last week, during an uncommon joint appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta and the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, expressed their common support for the immediate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty so that keen US strategic interests are protected. In doing so, the three distinguished witnesses articulated as well the interests of major US companies involved in searching for hydrocarbon deposits overseas, a project wholly supported by the Obama administration.

As Secretary Clinton explained to the committee, American oil companies are presently capable of “exploring areas beyond the continental shelf, areas that reach 1½ times the size of Texas and are also wealthy in energy resources” .These companies demand from the US government to provide legal reassurances for such projects, which call for billion-dollar investments in sea bottom drilling and research. Secretary Panetta, on his part, elaborated on the advantages of ratifying the treaty given the fact that the United States possesses the second longest coastline and continental shelf in the world.

The apparent haste of the Obama administration to promote the ratification of the treaty springs from concerns that the US may be left behind in the race for sea bottom drilling by countries like Russia and Norway. Both these nations have claimed rights under the Law of the Sea to search and drill for hydrocarbons in the Arctic, where the gradual melting of the ice sheet presents opportunities for possible discoveries.

A further diplomatic motive for ratifying the treaty is for the US to assume an active posture according to the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea dispute, where Beijing has been making excessive demands, and the growing conflict with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz.

The Pentagon is also ardently seeking the ratification of the treaty in order to extend the reach of the US Navy through flexible navigation rights regulated by the Law of the Sea as, for example, during passage through international straits as well as during innocent passage through territorial waters of third countries. Such expanded operations are seen as of great significance in enhancing American power projection when need arises.

The Republican Party has not reacted positively to the White House's attempt to push through the ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty. Ultraconservatives, including those under the banner of the Tea Party movement, claim that accepting the Law of the Sea as binding would result in serious economic loss for the United States as significant appropriations will be directed to cover environmental obligations under the treaty, which, in turn, could foster the implementation of the Kyoto Treaty, a red cape issue for all conservative Republicans. The latter argue that ratification of the treaty, which they derogatorily call "LOST"(Law Of the Sea Treaty) will ultimately limit US sovereignty as US action on the high seas would become subject to international rules under the authority of the United Nations.

The potential ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty by the US is obviously highly significant for Greece. Our country was among the early signatories of the treaty in its efforts to counter the expansionist and revisionist policies of Turkey seeking to redefine the status of the Aegean Sea. The right to extend the territorial waters to 12 n.m., the median line principle concerning the division of sea zones, the recognition of sovereign rights for islets that possess elementary economic activity, the new scientific perception of the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zones– which overlooks the narrow geographic aspect– are crucial elements of Greek national policy, especially since Turkey refuses to accept and ratify the treaty.

The fact that the US hasn’t ratified the treaty causes major complications for Greek foreign policy, given the reluctance of the State Department to recognize the legitimacy of Greek arguments based on the Law of the Sea. US ratification of the treaty will bring US and Greek options in sync on many issues since the principles of the treaty are binding for all signatories. Furthermore, once the US has ratified the treaty, it would be markedly more difficult for countries that are not yet signatories, including Turkey, to keep questioning its rules for fear of international isolation and de-legitimization.

Note 1: The title of the article in Greek language: “Μέσω ....ΟΥΑΣΙΓΚΤΟΝ, η οριοθέτηση της ΑΟΖ και τα 12 ναυτικά μίλια “, Pages: 70-71, Epikaira Magazine, 31/05-06/06/2012, No. 137.

Note 2: Malamatenia Symeonidou (RIEAS Intern & Senior Student at the Department of Turkish and Asian Studies, University of Athens) translated the article from Greek to English language.

Note 3: Dr. Tassos Symeonides (RIEAS Academic Advisor) was the reviewer of the article.


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