Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIII No. 3 - July 2004


The U.S. and The Law Of The Sea

By Dr. Robbins Barstow, CSI Director Emeritus


The oceans of the world do not belong to any one nation. They are part of the common heritage of all humankind. All the myriad uses of the oceans, beyond the national 200-mile offshore zones, are now governed by the United Nations "Law of the Sea" Treaty (officially, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).

The treaty was adopted in 1982, at a UN Session in New York City which I attended as an observer. It went into effect in November 1994 after it was ratified by 60 countries. It has now been ratified by 145 nations, but unfortunately not by the United States.

Marine Mammal Provisions

When the Law of the Sea Treaty was being negotiated at the UN, more than 20 years ago, the Cetacean Society International (then the Connecticut Cetacean Society) played an active role in securing whale protective provisions in the treaty. As a result of extensive efforts by a number of conservation groups, Article 65, which deals with "Marine Mammals," specifically provides that: "States shall cooperate with a view to the conservation of marine mammals and in the case of cetaceans shall in particular work through the appropriate international organizations for their conservation, management and study."

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been recognized as the "appropriate international organization" for cetacean conservation under the treaty. For this and many other reasons, CSI and other globally conscious groups have continued working over the past two decades to secure official ratification of this vitally important treaty by the United States, through approval by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Best Interests

This year, because the treaty is about to be reopened for possible amendments, it appeared that at long last the United States might act to join the other 145 member nations in becoming party to the Law of the Sea Convention. It would certainly be in our nation's best interest to do so.

The United Nations-sponsored treaty establishes rules on ocean navigation, seabed mining, commercial fishing, pollution control, and many other matters.

Being party to the Convention will advance U.S. national security interests by preserving ocean navigation and overflight rights. It will advance U.S. economic interests by assuring the right to appropriately regulated utilization of the sea's natural resources and keeping international trade routes open for commerce. It will advance U.S. environmental interests by creating binding obligations on all States to protect and preserve the marine environment from pollution and other destructive interferences.

Senate Committee Approval

On February 25, 2004, after listening to testimony from dozens of witnesses at two public hearings, the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, chaired by Republican Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, by a unanimous vote of 19 - 0, approved the Law of the Sea Convention and recommended that the full Senate ratify it to protect critical U.S. interests.

Ratification at this time also had the expressed "full support" of President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, and key national security agencies. Unfortunately, however, a few die-hard, anti-international Senators raised objections and successfully sought to forestall early action on the treaty.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who controls the Senate agenda, indicated that the prospect of protracted controversy on a matter requiring a two-thirds vote meant that it probably would not be brought to the Senate floor this year.

Robbins Barstow in Senator Kerry's office

CSI Director Emeritus Dr. Robbins Barstow in Washington office of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, on April 28 lobbying mission for the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. Kerry, the presumed Democratic candidate for President in this year's critical election, has one of the strongest environmental voting records of any U.S. Senator and has been a long-time supporter of the treaty.

CSI Lobbying Efforts

On April 28, at the request of the CSI Board of Directors, I went to Washington and personally visited the offices of five United States Senators to urge support for immediate Senate action on the UN Law of the Sea Treaty. The Senators included Connecticut's two Democrats, Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, Republicans Richard Lugar and Bill Frist, and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry.

For each of them, I left with a staff member an individually handwritten letter, along with a reprint of a photo-illustrated article I had written back in 1983 about the importance of the treaty. I also left for each Senator a DVD copy of a 15-minute film I had produced in 1983 about "Whales and the Law of the Sea."

Senator Lugar deserves great praise for his determined leadership with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in pushing for ratification now. Senator Kerry, the presumed Democratic candidate for President in November, has affirmed, "as a longtime supporter of this treaty," his backing for ratification.

November 2004 will mark the 10th Anniversary of the treaty's going into effect, and the Convention provides for member states at that time to consider proposed revisions and amendments. We urge CSI members to write or phone their own Senators and Majority Leader Bill Frist (Room 416, Russell Senate Office Building, 202-224-3344) to request Senate action now to ratify the treaty, so the U.S. can be party to any negotiations.

Even if the U.S. Senate fails to act this year, we must continue to press for our country to become party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As was stated in our Cetacean Society newsletter 20 years ago, when the treaty was originally adopted, without U.S. approval: "Surely in the long run the common sense of the common people of the United States as well as of the rest of the world must lead to the ratification of this far-far-reaching sea-law treaty, so that it will take universal effect to preserve peace in the oceans of the world and to conserve the common resources of the seas on behalf of all the inhabitants of this water planet."


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