Paper Promises vs. Real Costs

April 22, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Washington Times on April 22, 2009.

The return of piracy to the high seas demonstrates the limits of international law. The international community might agree that it is wrong to seize ships for ransom, but a few thugs with guns in Somalia beg to differ. Paper guarantees cannot stop seajackings.

Yet Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wants Congress to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, the ultimate in paper guarantees. LOST, which essentially creates a second United Nations, is an artifact of the collectivist New International Economic Order popular in the 1970s, but it is being resold as a guarantor of freedom of the seas.

The convention obviously doesn’t do anything to prevent piracy. Moreover, the recent contretemps between the U.S. and Chinese navies demonstrates that LOST’s navigational guarantees are no more certain.

The USNS Impeccable, an unarmed spy ship, was operating 75 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Chinese vessels harassed the U.S. vessel and ordered it to leave, causing the U.S. Navy to send in a supporting destroyer.

Territorial waters extend just 12 nautical miles, but LOST empowers nations to exercise control over resources in the 200‐​mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Washington contends that U.S. ships are allowed to conduct activities “in waters beyond the territorial sea of another state without prior notification or consent,” according to Defense Department spokesman Stewart Upton. Beijing disagrees.

Washington would seem to have the better argument, though China’s contention that peaceful uses of the ocean do not include spying is plausible. Alas, LOST fails to offer the clear, unambiguous protection of navigational freedom as claimed by its proponents.

LOST largely codifies customary international law, which favors free transit. However, the treaty only offers a paper guarantee. Even if LOST recognizes the Impeccable’s right to spy, it offers no practical protection of that right.

If China — or Brazil, Malaysia or Pakistan, which also purport to forbid intelligence gathering within their exclusive zones — believes it to be in its interest and ability to prevent foreign passage, it won’t spend a lot of time parsing ambiguous LOST provisions before acting. Geopolitical interest and military capability, not juridical technicalities, will triumph.

The problem is likely to grow as Beijing develops a blue‐​water navy. Last month, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “In the past several years, they have become more aggressive in asserting claims for the [exclusive zones] which are excessive under almost any international code.” Despite China’s adherence to LOST.

Although the treaty’s navigational benefits are more theoretical than real, LOST has significant downsides. Most important, the so‐​called Part XI governing seabed mining was amended in 1994, but the result is only less bad.

LOST was crafted to redistribute wealth from First World democracies to Third World autocracies. The International Seabed Authority would regulate private ocean development, mine the seabed itself through an entity called the Enterprise, and pay off favored nations and groups. Those objectives remain unchanged.

Moreover, treaty proponents talk excitedly about new litigation opportunities created by LOST. Professor William C.G. Burns of the Monterey Institute of International Studies wrote that the convention “may prove to be one of the primary battlegrounds for climate change issues in the future.” He dismissed the argument that the document does not authorize such litigation: “While very few of the drafters of [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] may have contemplated that it would one day become a mechanism to confront climate change, it clearly may play this role in the future.”

Environmental activists also look forward to using LOST Article 207, which directs countries to “adopt laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from land‐​based sources.” Treaty advocates publicly claim the provision is merely hortatory.

Yet the mandate already has sparked litigation between Ireland and Britain. Moreover, Citizens for Global Solutions and the World Wildlife Federation argue that the convention will stop Russia from polluting the Arctic. They have yet to explain how LOST would bind Russia but not America.

No wonder Bernard H. Oxman of the University of Miami warned LOST backers to shut up about their plans. He explained: “Experienced international lawyers know where many of the sensitive nerve endings of governments are. Where possible, they should try to avoid irritating them.”

Finally, the United Nations proclaims that LOST is not “a static instrument, but rather a dynamic and evolving body of law that must be vigorously safeguarded and its implementation aggressively advanced.” If you like activist judges at the national level, imagine what you will get at the international level.

Before the Senate approves the Law of the Sea Treaty, members should consider the tradeoff they would be making. The convention offers paper benefits but imposes real costs. It’s a deal only a pirate could love.

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