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Law of the Sea Treaty: The Next Stage in a Historic Effort by Friends

December 16, 2009

Joe Volk and I attended a meeting at the State Department with the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs yesterday to discuss U.S ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty. We were invited as part of a coalition of groups that includes some unlikely bedfellows. I have never before sat around a table on the same side as gas and oil industry executives, AT&T, environmental groups, and the Navy, yet the diversity of the coalition reflects how uncontroversial ratification should be.

The Law of the Sea Treaty has particular historical relevance to FCNL because it was Samuel and Miriam Levering, two “Friend in Residence” with us in 1972-73, that wrote much of the treaty. FCNL worked hard on the Law of the Sea throughout the 70s, but less so in recent years. The Leverings’ work focused on protecting the oceans as a global resource that should not be exploited by any country or corporation; and on providing a legal framework to deal with issues that affect our “common heritage,” the vast segments of ocean that do not fall within an individual country’s Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Yesterday’s meeting reiterated the same refrain this coalition has heard for the last thirty years–now is not the time. The Assistant Secretary and her staff were very positive about the Law of the Sea and repeatedly expressed their commitment to its ratification and the positive inter-agency energy behind this priority. However, she also continually referenced a full legislative calendar that includes health care, climate change, the START treaty, and a looming congressional election cycle which will make it difficult to get anything done. Members of the coalition continued to push the Assistant Secretary for a week somewhere in February or March to push a ratification process that would hopefully garner bi-partisan support and pass fairly easily. Indeed, Presidents George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama all agree that we should join the treaty. I don’t think I can name another issue in recent memory that has such unanimous support!

From my perspective, acceding to the Law of the Sea Treaty will become increasingly important as global warming continues unabated and the ice in arctic regions melts. Already the U.S, Canada, Russia and Norway jostle for rights to natural resources in the arctic that used to be inaccessible. Without a legal framework to govern issues like this one, the country with the most clout will dominate, possibly even instigating violent conflict for control of dwindling resources. Even though there are a variety of reasons that groups want to see the U.S join the Law of the Sea Treaty, some of which do not align with my own beliefs about stewardship of natural resources or use of military might, we cannot begin to work on those differences without a legal structure to guide us.

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