The Senate Foreign Relations Committee assembled a high-profile cast of witnesses today in Chairman John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) passionate quest to push the U.S. to sign and ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty.
But none other than former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld showed up to testify — and oppose the United Nations convention as unwise and un-American.
Kerry began the full day of hearings with an op-ed on The Huffington Post trying to push the bipartisan nature of the treaty. “It’s an issue that President George W. Bush and I actually agreed on — strongly, unequivocally,” Kerry said, adding that last week all living former Republican secretaries of State gave a nod to the treaty in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
He highlighted earlier testimony of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who called the treaty, signed by every permanent member of the UN Security Council except the U.S., “the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain.”
Kerry said the treaty needs to be settled because of economic concerns related to maritime claims, such as exploiting resources from the ocean seabed, and the national security component.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was concluded in 1982 and defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in regard to business including natural resources management and environmental protection, and establishes baselines for territorial water, a state’s contiguous zone, and its exclusive economic zone.
John Negroponte, Bush’s first director of national intelligence, and the State Department’s former top lawyer in the Bush administration, John Bellinger, argued for the treaty today, saying that the Navy needs the protection offered by the treaty’s territorial conclusions and oil and gas companies need the protection for their deepwater claims.
“Let me emphasize that the Bush administration did not decide to support the Law of the Sea Convention out of a blind commitment to multilateral treaties or international organizations,” Bellinger said of the 2002 decision to support ratification. “No one has ever accused the Bush administration of an over-abundance of enthusiasm for the United Nations or multilateralism.”
Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) argued that the treaty “is the rare initiative that would contribute to all three objectives” of job creation, energy security and military needs.
But Rumsfeld countered Bellinger’s argument that “the benefits outweigh the concerns.”
“It was 30 years ago that President Reagan asked me to meet with world leaders to represent the United States in opposition to the Law of the Sea Treaty. Our efforts soon found a persuasive supporter in British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,” the former defense secretary said. “Today, as the U.S. Senate again considers approving this agreement, the reasons for their opposition, I believe, remain as persuasive.”
Rumsfeld called Thatcher’s response to the convention “unforgettable.”
“She said what this treaty proposes is nothing less than the international nationalization of roughly two-thirds of the earth’s surface,” he said. “The major idea underlying the Law of the Sea Treaty is that the richest of the oceans, beyond national boundaries, are the common heritage of mankind. And thus supposedly owned by all people. Actually, it means they’re un-owned.”
Rumsfeld called “an idea of enormous consequence” the fact that “anyone who finds a way to make use of such riches by applying their labor or their technology or their risk-taking are required to pay writ royalties of unknown amounts, potentially billions, possibly even tens of billions over an extended period, an ill-defined period of time, to the new International Seabed Authority for distribution to less developed countries.”
Saying that this principle has “no clear limits,” he mused that it could set a precedent for space exploration, too.
Aid to underdeveloped countries, he added, “has been and probably should be a sovereign choice for each nation” and the “mechanism for the redistribution is poorly designed” in the treaty.
Even if the U.S. assumed its seat on the authority post-ratification, it wouldn’t ensure accountability “to the American people any more than any other UN agency is accountable.”
Rumsfeld acknowledged the Navy’s desire to “lock in some navigation rights” with the treaty, which has been signed by 161 countries.
“The U.S. Navy has done quite well without this treaty for the past 200 years and certainly during the 20 or so years since it’s been in effect, relying often on customary international law to assert navigation rights,” he said. “In my view, the Law of the Sea Treaty would not make a large enough additional contribution regarding navigation rights or business certainty to counterbalance the problems it would create.”
Negroponte detailed the revisions achieved through negotiations in the years after the convention, arguing that it now “fully satisfies the criteria articulated in 1982 by President Reagan.”
“As you have heard recently from the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the JCS and our maritime service chiefs, there are real costs to remaining outside the treaty,” he said. “For the benefit of our country, I hope this is the year that we finally become party to the Law of the Sea.”
The first panel of the day consisted of Adm. James Winnefeld (USN), vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Adm. Jonathan Greenert (USN), chief of Naval operations; Adm. Robert Papp (USCG), commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; Gen. William Fraser III (USAF), commander of the U.S. Transportation Command; Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr., commander of the U.S. Northern Command; and Adm. Samuel Locklear III (USN), commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Touting the panel as “24 stars in all,” Kerry said he couldn’t remember when so many military leaders were before the panel at one time.
“Some say that joining the convention would result in a loss of sovereignty for the United States,” Winnefeld said. “I believe just the opposite to be true. Some would say — some of those op-eds and the like would say that joining the convention will open U.S. Navy operations to the jurisdiction of international courts. We know this is not true.”
Greenert said that recent “interference” with operations in the Western Pacific and concerns about Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz “underscore the need to be able to use the convention to clearly identify and respond to violations of international law that might attempt to constrain our access.”
“Remaining outside the convention is just inconsistent with our principles, our national security strategy and our leading position in maritime affairs,” the admiral said.
There is no guarantee of smooth sailing for the treaty, though, if it advances past committee — and Kerry plans to hold more hearings first — and to the floor of the upper chamber.
Twenty-seven senators have so far signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opposing the treaty; 34 opponents would kill the treaty’s chance of passage.
“We understand that Chairman Kerry has renewed his efforts to pursue Senate ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We are writing to let you know that we believe this Convention reflects political, economic, and ideological assumptions which are inconsistent with American values and sovereignty,” states the May letter to Reid from the Republicans.
“If this treaty comes to the floor, we will oppose its ratification,” they vowed.
Kerry said at today’s hearing that he was “thrilled” to see that it was Republicans arguing over the treaty while Democrats were unified behind it.
The senator said that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act doesn’t set out latitude and longitude markers, so “the only way we can achieve certainty with respect to those demarcations is through an international agreement of some kind.”
Kerry also argued that the aid to underdeveloped nations mandated in the treaty was necessary due to aid cutbacks in the U.S. budget. “And the question is, you know, what are we all going to do about that?” he asked. “The idea that there may be some resources coming from something like this that goes to some of these countries may be a saving grace.”
Rumsfeld held fast to his assertion that the treaty would propel the U.S. down a road it doesn’t want to take.
“Very simply, I do not believe the United States should endorse a treaty that makes it a legal obligation for productive countries to pay royalties to less productive countries, based on rhetoric about common heritage of mankind,” Rumsfeld said.