There is an ongoing debate regarding the position of President
Ronald Reagan in regard to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the
Sea, better known as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). Fortunately,
there are multiple sources indicating precisely what Reagan would
do if presented with LOST today: He would reject it.
President Reagan on LOST
On January 29, 1982, Reagan issued a Presidential Statement
expressing his intention to reject LOST. It said, "While most
provisions of the draft convention are acceptable and consistent
with United States interests, some major elements of the deep
seabed mining regime are not acceptable."
The proponents of LOST selectively use Reagan's statement to
support their contention that the seabed mining provisions were the
only source of Reagan's objections to LOST. For example, in recent
Senate testimony, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte
testified that Reagan declined to sign LOST solely "[d]ue to deep
flaws in the deep seabed mining chapter--Part XI of the Convention"
and that subsequent negotiations had resolved "each of the
objections that President Reagan had identified."
In a subsequent hearing, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) repeated
that contention: "It is telling that the President did not raise
any objection to any provision of the Convention outside the deep
seabed mining section. President Reagan made no demands for any
other changes in the treaty."
Those characterizations of Reagan's objections are demonstrably
false. In the recently published book The Reagan Diaries,
Reagan delivered the coup de grâce to the argument that
Reagan's objections to LOST were limited to the deep seabed
provisions. A diary entry from June 29, 1982, reads, "Decided in
[National Security Council] meeting - will not sign 'Law of the
Sea' treaty even without seabed mining provisions." This private diary
entry remains the best proof that Reagan would have rejected LOST
even if the seabed mining provisions had been removed.
A January 1982 Presidential Statement also shows that Reagan's
objections were not confined to the treaty's seabed mining
provisions. Reagan stated that LOST was "not acceptable" as
drafted, and would become acceptable only if it was revised in a
"will not allow for amendments to come into force without
approval of the participating states, including in our case the
advice and consent of the Senate; ... and;
will be likely to receive the advice and consent of the Senate.
In this regard, the convention should not contain provisions for
the mandatory transfer of private technology and participation
by and funding for national liberation movements."
Senator Lugar should take note: Reagan's objection to LOST being
amended without the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate is
clearly "outside the deep seabed mining section." His objection to
the participation of "national liberation movements" is also wholly
unrelated to deep seabed mining.
Objections Remain Unresolved
Contrary to the vociferous declarations made by today's LOST
proponents, President Reagan's objections were not "fixed" by the
1994 revisions to LOST made during the Clinton Administration.
Amendments to LOST. The treaty provision relating to LOST
amendments has not been altered since 1982. Article 314 of LOST
(located not in Part XI of the treaty, as asserted by treaty
proponents, but rather in Part XVII) empowers the bureaucracy
created by LOST to amend the provisions of the treaty--even over
the objection of any member state. In other words, the LOST
bureaucracy--dominated by the developing world--may vote to amend
the terms of the treaty over the objections of the United States
and without the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Reagan
rightly singled out Article 314 as objectionable when he rejected
LOST in 1982. The 1994 Agreement affirmed that Article 314 was the
proper provision for amending LOST.
Participation of "National Liberation Movements" in LOST.
Reagan was clearly disturbed by the provisions of LOST that allowed
"national liberation movements" to participate and benefit from the
treaty. As was (and still is) customary at the United Nations, the
vast majority of U.N. member states viewed the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO) as a "national liberation movement"
and not as a terrorist group. As such, the U.N. extends full rights
and benefits of U.N. membership to the PLO. Participation in LOST
was no exception. At least two parts of the treaty guaranteed the
PLO's interests in LOST, including the following declaration:
"In the case of a territory whose people have not attained full
independence or other self-governing status recognized by the
United Nations, or a territory under colonial domination,
provisions concerning rights and interests under the Convention
shall be implemented for the benefit of the people of the territory
with a view to promoting their well-being and development."
The LOST signatories also permitted these "national liberation
movements" to sign the final act of the conference in their
capacity as observers. In 1982 and 2007, the PLO was and is
composed of groups that are designated as foreign terrorist
organizations by the U.S. government. Such groups include the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestine
Liberation Front. The LOST provisions guaranteeing the
interests of such movements remain in full effect and were not
mentioned--much less "fixed"--by the 1994 Agreement.
An International Bureaucracy Controlling the Oceans. The
creation of a new international bureaucracy with the power to
regulate the oceans was repellent to Reagan because he knew it
would be used to favor the underdeveloped world at the expense of
industrialized countries. He rejected such notions even before he
entered the White House. In an October 1978 radio address, Reagan
declared that "no national interest of ours could justify handing
sovereign control of two-thirds of the earth's surface to the Third
World." Reagan recognized that powerful U.N. voting blocs composed
of nations from the developing world would not bend in any
international forum, and were committed to the redistributionist
provisions of LOST: "No one has ruled out the idea of a [Law of the
Sea] treaty--one which makes sense--but after long years of
fruitless negotiating, it became apparent that the underdeveloped
nations who now control the General Assembly were looking for a
free ride at our expense--again."
In his public statements before and during his presidency and in
his private diary, President Reagan expressed strident objections
to LOST. His objections were well founded and remain relevant
today. In addition to the participation of the PLO, Americans
should be skeptical about a U.N. treaty that gives control over the
world's oceans to an unaccountable international bureaucracy.
Reagan correctly assessed that the powers that control the U.N.
General Assembly were determined to establish a treaty regime that
favored underdeveloped countries at the expense of developed
countries like the United States.
Reagan's objections to LOST have been neither addressed nor
resolved. In deciding whether to ratify LOST, members of the U.S.
Senate may choose between two divergent approaches: Side with
President Reagan in defense of U.S. national interests; or side
with those who erroneously claim that the Clinton Administration
resolved his objections.
The choice should be clear.
Steven Groves is Bernard
and Barbara Lomas Fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Center for
Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.
Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries,
Douglas Brinkley, ed., HarperColllins, 2007.
Presidential Statement, January 29, 1982
(emphasis added). A subsequent Presidential Statement issued by
Reagan on March 10, 1983, did not alter or amend Reagan's
previously stated objections in any manner. See Ronald Reagan,
"Statement on United States Oceans Policy," March 10, 1983, at
Id., at Resolution IV.