United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Law of the Sea: UNCLOS—sometimes called the “Law of the Sea Treaty” (or LOST)—established a comprehensive legal regime for navigation and international management of oceanic resources, including the deep seabed.

President Reagan Refused to Sign: President Ronald Reagan announced that he would not sign UNCLOS shortly after it was adopted in 1982. Reagan stated several objections to it, most of which dealt with its provisions on deep seabed mining. Reagan did, however, support the navigational provisions of UNCLOS, which reflected the customary international law of the sea.

The U.S. Has Much to Lose …

Another Unaccountable International Bureaucracy: UNCLOS establishes the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a new U.N.-style bureaucracy located in Kingston, Jamaica. As only one of more than 160 countries in the ISA, the U.S. would have limited authority over its decisions regarding the deep seabed. Just like the U.N. General Assembly, proceedings at the ISA would be dominated by anti-U.S. interests.

Redistribution of U.S. Wealth to the “Developing World”: The U.S. currently enjoys full sovereignty over its entire continental shelf. It can claim all its mineral resources (e.g., oil and gas) and can collect royalty revenue from oil and gas companies for exploitation. If the U.S. joined UNCLOS, Article 82 would require the U.S. to transfer a significant portion of any such royalties to the ISA for “redistribution” to the so-called developing world, including corrupt and despotic regimes.

Mandatory Dispute Resolution: Under Part XV, the U.S. would be required to engage in mandatory dispute resolution for any claim brought against it by another member of UNCLOS. This may open the U.S. to any number of specious allegations brought by opportunistic nations, including allegations of environmental degradation or polluting the ocean environment with carbon emissions or even from land-based sources.

U.S. Economic Interests at Risk: UNCLOS claims the deep seabed resources of the oceans as “the common heritage of mankind” and forbids mining unless permission is first received by the ISA, which, of course, takes into account the interests of “developing states” regarding the exploitation of those resources. UNCLOS encourages technology transfers from advanced mining companies to support the mining activities by developing states, which is likely to discourage U.S. companies from participating in such activities.

The Convention Was Not “Fixed” in 1994: During the early 1990s the deep seabed mining provisions of UNCLOS were renegotiated in the “1994 Agreement.” This addendum to the convention was signed by the Clinton Administration in July 1994. While the 1994 Agreement improved many provisions of the convention, it did not secure “veto” power for the U.S. over the decisions of the ISA.

… and Little to Gain

Navigation Rights Already Guaranteed: The navigational provisions of UNCLOS reflect long-standing customary international law, under which the U.S. Navy has operated since it was created. The navy has consistently demonstrated its ability to access key strategic straits and archipelagic waters and to protect its high seas freedoms—despite the fact that the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS.

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Why the Law of the Sea Treaty is Still a Bad Idea