U.S. lawmakers have reintroduced legislation for the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, a legal framework established at a United Nations convention 29 years ago.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a comprehensive set of rules governing how nations can use the world’s oceans; 168 states and the European Union are parties to the treaty. The U.S. signed the treaty in 1994 but is not a party to it – the Senate has not held a vote on ratifying the treaty in the nearly three decades since it went into force.
“More than 20 years after UNCLOS took effect, the U.S. is one of just a handful of signatories that has not ratified it, preventing us from engaging in important international conversations about our oceans and seas,” U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), one of the bill's sponsors, said. “This long overdue step would help strengthen our national security, expand oceanic access for maritime industries, and support efforts to preserve the environmental health of our oceans. Ratifying UNCLOS enables the U.S. to participate in the decision making process regarding our planet’s oceans and seas.”
According to a Congressional Research Services report, U.S. domestic law largely aligns with UNCLOS.
“As presently understood and interpreted, UNCLOS provisions generally appear to reflect current U.S. policy with respect to living marine resource management, conservation, and exploitation,” the report states. “Thus, some may not see a benefit of U.S. accession to UNCLOS, given that U.S. policies generally reflect its provisions. However, some experts view certain U.S. living resource laws as exceeding the obligations set forth in UNCLOS, which may complicate U.S. bilateral negotiations with nations party to UNCLOS.”
Hirono and U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced ratification legislation twice before.
“The longer we sit out, the longer the rest of world will continue to set the agenda of maritime domain, from seabed mining to critical subsea infrastructure,” Murkowski said. “Ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty will help us keep China’s illegal territorial advances at bay in the South China and is also critical to our national interest in the maritime domain, especially as other Arctic nations look to define their rights to seabed areas beyond their existing exclusive economic zones. It is time for America to not just join the world at the table, but to make sure we are helping to set the rules going forward.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations has worked to build upon UNCLOS with the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, commonly referred to as the High Seas Treaty. Signed in March, the treaty designates 30 percent of the oceans as protected areas and provides funding for conservation. The U.S. signed onto the High Seas Treaty in September.
“The ocean is one global system, and its health is key to the health of our planet,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “This historic High Seas Treaty creates a coordinated approach to establishing marine protected areas on the high seas, a critical step to conserving ocean biodiversity and reaching the global community’s '30 by 30' target to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.”
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