Don’t Resurrect the Law of the Sea Treaty

October 13, 2005 • Policy Analysis No. 552

For more than 20 years, the United States has refused to become a party to the Law of the Sea Treaty. Advocates of the treaty, a comprehensive measure governing navigational rights on the sea and mineral rights on the seabed, claimed that U.S. failure to join the convention would result in chaos on the high seas. It has not. Very few Americans know anything about the treaty, and even advocates are hard‐​pressed to explain how the United States would benefit from its adoption.

A round of changes to the document won the support of the Clinton administration, which signed the treaty in 1994, but those changes failed to attract sufficient support from the Senate. The LOST has languished unratified for more than 10 years.

The logjam appears to have broken, with prominent Republicans, and the president himself, signaling support for ratification. But the changes made to the LOST over the years have not altered its fundamental principles, which are collectivist in nature and inimical to U.S. interests. Most objectionable is Section XI, that portion of the treaty governing seabed mining. The provisions of Section XI may have the effect of forever discouraging such operations, even where there might be huge benefits. Regulations are to be administered through a complicated system of committees and agencies within the International Seabed Authority, a creation of the United Nations that has ultimate jurisdiction over the agreement.

Funding for the ISA, and for enforcement of the LOST, would flow disproportionately from the United States. The ISA’s current budget is modest, but the revised agreement changed none of the underlying institutional incentives that bias virtually every international organization, most obviously the UN itself, toward extravagance.

Some supporters of the treaty insist that the LOST is essential to establishing the rule of law on the high seas and will, therefore, aid in the fight against global terrorism. If the stakes are that high, it is crucial that the treaty be a good one. America’s interests will be best served if the Senate rejects the LOST.

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