U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Holds Hearing on the Law of the Sea Convention

On May 23, 2012, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the Law of the Sea Convention that the Committee called “The U.S. National Security and Strategic Imperatives for Ratification.”

Senator John Kerry

Opening the hearing, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Committee Chairman, said he was “deeply supportive” of the treaty and believed “it is now more urgent than ever that we ratify it because to remain outside of it is fundamentally, directly counter to the best interests of our country.” Ratification, he said, “will protect America’s economic interests and our strategic security interests.”

Kerry promised a comprehensive set of hearings so that proponents and opponents of the treaty can be heard. Kerry, however, said he would delay a Committee vote until after the November election in order to keep the debate about ratification out of the “hurly-burly of presidential politics.”

Three Obama Administration officials–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey–were the witnesses at the May 23rd hearing. Their full testimony is available online.

Secretary Hillary Clinton

Secretary Clinton said, “Whatever arguments may have existed for delaying U.S. accession no longer exist and truly cannot even be taken with a straight face.” By refusing to ratify the treaty, Mrs. Clinton said, the U.S. could fail to exploit untapped oil and gas deposits buried beneath the offshore seabed. It could lose out to Russia, Norway and other countries in staking claims to the Arctic Ocean, where melting ice is opening up untold mineral riches. And the U.S. could lose credibility in challenging China’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea.

Secretary Leon Panetta
General Martin Dempsey

Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey focused on the national security benefits, arguing that by instituting rules and a mechanism for resolving disputes, the treaty reduces the threat of conflict in hot spots like the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to block in retaliation for oil sanctions. Panetta’s lengthy earlier speech about the treaty was summarized in a prior post.

Two Republican members of the Senate Committee voiced opposition to ratification. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma complained that under the treaty, the U.S. would have to transfer billions of dollars in royalties from oil and gas production on the continental shelf to an international authority, which would redistribute the money to less developed countries. Senator James Risch of Idaho said the treaty would oblige the U.S. to adhere to international agreements to stem greenhouse gas emissions. “That’s got Kyoto written all over it,” he said, referring to the climate change treaty previously rejected by the United States.

There is other opposition to ratification. Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to a defense spending bill that banned funding for implementation of the treaty. Also opposed are The Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, supports ratification as offering “clear legal rights and protections” to U.S. businesses to “take advantage of the vast natural resources in and under the oceans off the U.S. coasts and around the world.”