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June 01, 2012

ABA president says U.S. should ratify Law of the Sea Convention

Treaty has languished for years

ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month to forward the Law of the Sea Convention to the full Senate for its advice and consent for ratification of the treaty.

“This treaty represents a unique moment in the development of the rule of law,” Robinson said in a June 14 statement to the committee. “Acceding to the convention,” he said, “is unquestionably in the economic, national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, as is reasserting the leadership role of the United States in advancing and shaping the rule of law in the oceans as it evolves over time.”

He emphasized that it is past time for the United States, as the world’s leading maritime and naval power, to become a party to the convention, which was drafted in 1982. Although the United States was instrumental in negotiating the Law of the Sea Convention, it was not until 1994 that President Clinton signed an amended version that satisfied U.S. concerns related to deep seabed mining and submitted the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification. Since then, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the treaty twice, but it has never received a full Senate vote.

The convention contains provisions regarding transit passage and other navigational freedoms, protection of the marine environment, maritime jurisdiction and boundaries, and resource management rights. 

“I am convinced beyond any doubt that joining the other 160 nations that are party to the treaty will protect America’s economic interests and our strategic security interests,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who launched a series of hearings on the treaty in May by inviting a high-level panel that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen.  Martin Dempsey to express strong support for the convention’s ratification. They all maintained that joining the convention would provide legal certainty to U.S. maritime operations and allow the United States to exercise global security leadership. The United States is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the only Arctic nation that is not a party to the convention.

Robinson emphasized the widespread backing for the treaty by current and former government officials as well as representatives of all of the principal affected stakeholders – the military, the energy industry, the telecommunications industry, the shipping industry, fisheries, and environmental organizations. “Seldom, if ever, has there been such unanimity of responsible opinion on the importance of the United States becoming a party to a treaty,” he said.

He explained that the United States currently has no seat at the table where critical discussions are being held and decisions are being made that impact our interests in the Arctic and other areas around the world. He added that the United States also is missing valuable opportunities to advance its interests in the area of deep seabed mining

Responding to alarm that has been raised by opponents regarding the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea created under the convention, Robinson assured the committee that the United States will elect arbitral procedures for certain categories of disputes rather than submit to the jurisdiction of the tribunal or the International Court of Justice. He said the United States also will opt out of all mandatory dispute settlements with respect to military and certain other activities. The convention, he said, does not and will not award any control over U.S. military activities to any international court of international bureaucracy.

Despite the strong support, a group of senators opposing the treaty may make it difficult for proponents to garner the two-thirds Senate vote necessary for ratification. More than 25 Republican senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressing concern that U.S. sovereignty would be threatened if the treaty is ratified.

The ABA Governmental Affairs Office has established a website devoted to providing background and updates on the progress toward the treaty’s ratification at

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