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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Law of the Sea

Air Date: Week of

Oceans experts say one of the best ways the U.S. can clean up oceans is to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. Nearly 150 countries have signed the treaty and three U.S. presidents, including George W.Bush, support it. So why can't it get a vote in the U.S. Senate? Jeff Young explains from Washington.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. As the United States pitches in with humanitarian aid in the Indian Ocean, a former minister of Marine Resources and Fisheries for Indonesia says there is an important way the U.S. could help: ratify and join most of the world’s nations as a party to the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Minister Rohmin Dahuri told us that with the United States as an integral part of the Law of the Sea it would be easier to coordinate an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system now under discussion. It would also enhance coming negotiations over fishing rights designed to speed recovery for Indian Ocean marine resources.

The Law of the Sea treaty is decades old. And now, in the wake of government and private reports sounding the alarm on the state of the world’s oceans, the treaty has won broad support. But, as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, a small group of opponents is keeping the treaty from coming to the Senate floor for ratification.

YOUNG: Admiral James Watkins knows a thing or two about the seven seas. After 30 years commanding Navy vessels, he retired to lead a group dedicated to ocean studies. And last month he wrapped up three years of work as head of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. That commission reported on the crisis in the world’s oceans and spelled out ways to turn things around.

At the top of the commission’s list? The U.S. should sign on to a treaty it has considered for some 20 years--the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

WATKINS: It was our very first initiative and it was unanimous by the commission. And we all felt so strongly about it we felt we couldn’t wait until two or three years later and make that statement, particularly since we felt it was timely to pass that convention because there were certain changes going on at the very time and we should have been involved in it. And we weren’t.

YOUNG: One hundred forty-five countries have signed the Law of the Sea Treaty, and three U.S. presidents have supported it. It deals with everything from mining the ocean floor to flying above territorial waters. Watkins says that makes it the ideal international framework to protect ocean resources, regulate dumping from ships, and limit overfishing.

WATKINS: We heard from the long-liner fishermen in the Pacific, very upset that they were denied to go below a certain latitude to fish because of the by-catch of sea turtles. But what about the other Asian nations? Could they go in? Sure. So they went in and fished and can fish it dry. So, we need to be at the table.

YOUNG: When Law of the Sea finally got a hearing for the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee two years ago, it drew support from groups that rarely agree on anything. For example, the National Environmental Trust and American Petroleum Institute joined forces to call for the treaty’s ratification. It passed the committee unanimously last February. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist never brought it to the Senate floor for a vote. Now, a new Congress has convened, but Frist still won’t say whether the treaty will be put to a vote this session.

FRIST: I don’t know, but we will certainly look at it as we will a whole number of other bills. But don’t know the agenda other than the fact we’ll do class action early on.

YOUNG: Frist’s delay has treaty supporters like Admiral Watkins puzzled. He’s sure Law of the Sea would easily win the two-thirds majority required for any treaty ratification.

WATKINS: The president wants it. Secretary of defense has said fine. Secretary of state urges it. Let’s get on with it and do it!

YOUNG: But a small group of Senate opponents stands in the way, among them Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe. Inhofe held his own hearings on Law of the Sea in the environment committee he chairs, and he did not like what he heard.

INHOFE: We are giving some of our jurisdiction to the United Nations at a time when they had clearly demonstrated that they’re not acting, many times, in our best interest. And I think the timing is not right for something like this. Keep in mind, this all started long before 9/11, and now that we have this new threat I think it’s not the time to open the doors wider. It’s time to look at security much closer.

YOUNG: Inhofe’s criticisms echo those circulating on conservative talk radio and web sites urging Frist to sink the Law of the Sea.

SCHLAFLY: Absolutely, Senator Frist is doing the right thing. I hope he never brings it up.

YOUNG: That’s conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly earned her reputation fighting feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment. Now she’s turned her attention to treaties, like Law of the Sea.

SCHLAFLY: They put us under the control of a lot of countries and their dictators who don’t like us and whose purpose in life is to redistribute American wealth to the rest of the world so these dictators can be maintained into the style to which they’d like to become accustomed. There really isn’t any advantage to the United States to accommodate ourselves to what other countries want.

WATKINS: Phyllis Schlafly? I mean, come on!

YOUNG: Admiral Watkins says the treaty’s sovereignty questions were addressed long ago. If he was impatient with the delayed vote, he is exasperated with the reason for it.

WATKINS: The claim is that we would lose our sovereignty. Bananas! That’s nonsense! So, what is it? What is driving that ideology that has no substance to it?

YOUNG: Treaty supporter Mark Helmke has a guess as to what’s holding up ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty. Helmke’s a senior staff member for Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. Helmke says stalling this treaty is a way for Republican leadership to appease some of the party’s more conservative elements.

HELMKE: It’s because, politically, this group that raises this sovereignty red herring would be people who would also be very much opposed to what the United States is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq – if a Democratic president was doing that. So, there have been some who’ve been concerned that the White House politically has basically given these guys a bone to play with in exchange for them not complaining about what we’re doing with nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, the White House is going to have to get beyond that now and argue that, okay, the election is over with, this treaty is too important to the United States from a number of different standpoints, and we just need to move forward and ratify it.

YOUNG: Helmke says until the Bush Administration does that, Law of the Sea and the ocean protection it could bring will stay anchored in the Senate. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



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