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Military Officials Urge Accession to Law of Sea Treaty

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2007 – Ahead of an anticipated Senate vote to ratify the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, two military officials today encouraged the congressional chamber to accede to the treaty that will guarantee aspects of vital passage and overflight.

“Being outside the convention, we are at a distinct disadvantage in protecting the navigation rights that are codified in the convention,” Navy Capt. Patrick J. Neher, director of the Navy’s International and Operational Law Office of the Judge Advocate General, told Internet journalists and “bloggers” during a joint conference call today with a U.S. Coast Guard official.

“One of the arguments we make over on (Capitol Hill) is, we need to lock into these rights and freedoms while we can,” Neher said. “We would never be able to get the deal that we got in this convention if we had to negotiate it again today.”

Nations negotiated the Law of the Sea Treaty between 1973 and 1982. The treaty sought to update the customary law of the sea that dates from the 1600s to the present day. While U.S. officials helped hammer out the treaty, objections to the deep-sea mining clause caused the nation to not accede to it.

Neher said President Bush and his war cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Coast Guard commandant and numerous former national security officials have urged Congress to modify controversial language about deep-sea mining in order to proceed with ratification. By not being a member of the treaty that more than 150 nations have accepted, Neher argued, the United States is “dying a death of a thousand cuts.”

“There is a fundamental disconnect between trying to lead an alliance of nations to maintain public order on the world’s oceans, when you’re one of the handful of countries … that aren’t parties to that convention,” Neher said.

The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the years building the infrastructure needed to transport troops and equipment over global distances. Combat ships, oilers, sustainment ships, transport aircraft, tankers and pre-positioned assets all are key to getting combat power where it is needed, often within hours.

Coast Guard Capt. Charles D. Michel, chief of the Office of Maritime and International Law, offered an example of how failure to accede to the treaty could negatively affect American consumers near the U.S.-Canada border.

Canada told the United States last February that it won't allow liquefied natural gas tankers through Canadian waters to get to tankers that are being proposed on the Maine side of Passamaquoddy Bay, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The report states that Canada's ambassador in Washington described Head Harbor Passage, which U.S. tankers would pass through, as sovereign Canadian waters and an environmentally sensitive area that is challenging to navigate. He said allowing tankers longer than 900 feet into the passage is an environmental risk that Canada cannot accept.

In the case which Michel described as “hitting close to home,” he said that the natural gas shortage in the Northeastern U.S. “exists, it’s real and it impacts Americans.” The Coast Guard captain said that laws codified in the Law of the Sea treaty, if adopted by the United States, would solidify the United States’ right to transport through the disputed waters.

“The only thing that we’ve got working in our tool kit right now is soft diplomacy, which hasn’t worked,” Michel said. “(Canada) is a party to the Law of the Sea Convention; we’re not. Without being a party to (the convention), we cannot avail ourselves to the dispute resolution provisions.

“We would win; there’s absolutely no question about it,” Michel said if the Canada-U.S. dispute were to be arbitrated under the convention’s provisions. “But right now, U.S. citizens are likely going to end up paying more for their natural gas, and probably have less of it, because of our inability to become part of the Law of the Sea Convention.”

Around the globe, the treaty also guarantees right of passage through some of the most strategic areas. In June, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a “24-star” letter to the Senate, urging accession.

“The convention codifies navigation and overflight rights and high seas freedoms that are essential for the global mobility of our armed forces,” the letter said. “It furthers our National Security Strategy, strengthens the coalition and supports the President’s Proliferation Security Initiative.”

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