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Obama effort to secure US accession to UNCLOS

 IFS researchers Amund Lundesgaard and Ingrid Lundestad on possible US accession to UNCLOS.

6 June 2012


The US has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs states’ rights and responsibilities on, in, under and over the sea, despite the efforts of several presidents, and the endorsement of the US military and major business actors. Recent developments suggest that the Obama administration is attempting to make an effort to change this.

The treaty was opened for signature on 10. December 1982. Several presidents, both democratic and republican, sought the Senate’s advice and consent, but to no avail.  A minority of conservative politicians have strongly opposed the treaty, which they believe is a threat to US sovereignty. Instead of a treaty, they argue, the US should rely on its Navy to secure its maritime-strategic goals, as it has done for the last 200 years.

A majority in the US debate supports accession, and among the advocates of the treaty is the leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry. Kerry argues that the US has complied with the convention, without fully enjoying the advantages it provides. Among the advantages, Kerry mentions codified navigational rights, a stronger hand in negotiations over territorial rights, and predictable and equal rights for US companies in the international competition for extracting resources at sea.

By sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to testify in favour of the treaty at a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Obama administration is now strengthening its commitment to the ratification of the convention.

Related to this recent push by the Obama administration are two international developments that may give the issue an increased sense of urgency. In the light of the recent US pivot to Asia, the proponents argue that UNCLOS will contribute to maritime order and navigational rights in the region. In the Arctic, the administration argues it will secure stability and access to sea lines of communication and resources as the arctic sea ice is receding. Referring to other nation’s behaviour in these areas, Leon Panetta asks rhetorically: “How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the treaty that codifies those rules?”

It is an open question whether the Arctic and Asia-Pacific situations can contribute to UNCLOS getting the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate. John McCain has stated that it could be voted over in December, after the presidential elections but before the inauguration of new senators. It is, nevertheless, clear that the Senate has had the opportunity to accept the treaty for a number of years, without prioritising or passing it.


Update: Two new hearings on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea were held on Thursday 14 June. The first hearing for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations centered on perspectives from the US military. Officials from the George W. Bush administration were among the witnesses in the second hearing.


Update II: Over the summer, more Senators have voiced concern over the Convention. A two thirds majority vote is needed for the treaty to pass, and now 34 Senators are said to oppose US accession. This means that it is unlikely that the 100 Senators of the United States will vote on this issue in the current Congress.


Amund Lundesgaard and Ingrid Lundestad, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS)

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