December 10, 2012 | Commentary on International Law
“It is an outrage.” The source of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s anger? The fact that the United States has yet to approve a treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which often goes by the acronym LOST.
Mr. Panetta was speaking after the election. His ire about LOST’s status suggests that the Obama administration may well make this a second-term priority.
The treaty has come close to being ratified by the United States — it dates back to 1982. However, LOST has never been able to gain enough supporters in the Senate.
That could change — and quickly. Its advocates, hoping that their moment has arrived, are turning up the heat. I don’t mean just administration officials. LOST has its defenders in the media, too. Bob Keeler of Newsday, for example, recently wrote that refusing to sign the pact is “unfathomable.” By rejecting treaties such as LOST, he said, we’re refusing “to be part of the family of nations,” and we’re “well on the way to becoming an outlaw nation.”
According to its supporters, we need LOST for a variety of reasons. The main one concerns the oil and gas resources in the outer limits of our extended continental shelf. The treaty’s proponents say we can obtain legal title to it only by signing on to the treaty.
Mr. Panetta said “there are countries that are making claims there, and we can’t even engage with those countries because we haven’t approved the Law of the Sea Treaty.”
Adds Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican: “If the United States does not ratify this treaty, our ability to claim the vast extended continental shelf off Alaska will be seriously impeded.” Without LOST, we’re told, we won’t be able to develop the hydrocarbon resources beneath the shelf in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean.
It sounds dire and, at a time of fluctuating prices for gasoline and other forms of energy, alarming. Fortunately, these predictions aren’t true.
Under international law and long-standing U.S. policy, we already have access to these areas. Presidents dating back to Harry S. Truman have issued proclamations — and Congress has enacted laws — establishing America’s maritime laws and boundaries. No one has challenged them.
Perhaps LOST’s proponents would like this to change. They tend to be fans of superfluous international agreements, and they frequently back policies that would tie the hands of the United States and prevent us from acting in our own interests. The fact remains that their claim about LOST being necessary to obtain legal title to the oil and gas under the extended continental shelf is pure fiction.
“The Obama administration has promoted the Law of the Sea Treaty and seems to have bought into the false nobility of global governance,” former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. “Why should the American people support leaders who put American interests on an equal footing with foreign interests? Aren’t they elected to represent ‘we the people,’ not we are the world?”
If we reject LOST, are we truly outside the “family of nations”? It’s true that more than 160 nations have ratified LOST. The United States is hardly alone in not signing. “More than 30 other nations — including Colombia, Israel, Peru and Turkey — have chosen not to ratify the convention,” writes the Heritage Foundation’s Steve Groves. “The nations that have joined LOST cannot prevent the United States or any other nation from mining the seabed any more than they can prevent the U.S. from exercising the freedom of navigation and overflight, the freedom of fishing, or any other high seas freedom.”
President Reagan was right to reject LOST 30 years ago. The U.S. Senate should do the same thing today.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in The Washington Times.