The Trump administration so far has been pretty silent about UNCLOS treaty. Why should we be concerned?

The Trump administration will face the same challenges as previous administrations when managing coastal borders.  International waters are more fluid than land borders, with disputes over the precise locations of coastal borders, undersea mineral and petroleum exploration, commercial fishing and preserving areas as marine wildlife refuges, the Trump administration will now have to address many with many of the same issues that their predecessors within the Obama, the Bush II as well as the Clinton administrations had to.  With specific regard to defining borders within waterways, our disputed coastal borders with Canada still have not been resolved.

There were similar disputes with Mexico, but those were finally resolved in June, 2000.  The U.S. government had to find a compromise solution because the dispute could have led to potential problems with the terms of the NAFTA agreement.  The dispute was resolved with a bilateral treaty with no involvement with the United Nations or with the International Seabed Authority.

The Trump administration will also now be faced with issues which the preceding Presidents did not have to, such as the PRC constructing artificial islands within the Spratly Islands archipelago in the South China Sea, and whether the UN has the authority to order the PRC to cease constructing these artificial islands.

The U.S. government’s potential ratification of the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea would effectively solve all of these issues.

Brief History Of The UNCLOS Treaty

The first series of United Nations meetings addressing Convention On The Law Of The Sea were held in Geneva, Switzerland between 1956 and 1958.  The 1956- 58 meetings did result in 4 treaties, which were entered into effect between 1962 and 1966.   There was a series of subsequent UNCLOS meetings in 1960, and then the UNCLOS III meetings were held between 1973 and 1982.  167 countries have now signed party to the UNCLOS, including the U.S., although while the U.S. government signed party to the Convention in 1994, we’ve still not ratified the convention.

“Signatory” Compared With Ratification

Briefly: The terms “signatory” and “ratification” have very specific definitions with relation to UN treaties.  With regard to UN treaties, countries have the option to sign party to a treaty without ratifying it.  When a government opts to sign party to a treaty without ratifying it, the government is stating that they approve of the principles, the objectives and the terms of a treaty, but they are not yet willing to be legally bound by the treaty.  In some instances, some governments will sign party to a treaty without ratifying it because their government needs to get approval from their national legislative bodies before agreeing to ratify a treaty.

Why haven’t we ratified?

1994 was 23 years ago, so why haven’t we ratified this convention? The President of the United States cannot directly order our ambassador to the UN to ratify this treaty without getting approval from the two-thirds of the Senate.  So far, no President since we signed party to this treaty has been able to get approval from the Senate.  This treaty has seemed to have been more of a priority for some Presidents than it has been for others.  Both former President Bush II, as well as former Secretary Of State Clinton, had encouraged the Senate to approve ratification of the UNCLOS treaty, but neither of them was able to secure the votes within the Senate to do so.

Will Trump support ratification of this treaty?

I do wish that I could answer that question.  I really do.  But I can’t, and neither can any other journalists.  The Trump administration so far has been pretty silent about this particular treaty.  As of April 2017, neither President Trump nor anyone within his cabinet staff has yet to issue any official statements stating whether or not the Trump administration supports or opposes urging Congress to approve ratification of the UNCLOS treaty.

It is not my role as an editorial columnist to guess what our politicians may or may not be thinking.  I will go so far as to assume that because President Trump and his cabinet staff have been so silent about the UNCLOS treaty so far, this issue is a relatively low priority in their agenda.

Why should we be concerned?

There are a number of reasons that the UNCLOS is now more relevant than ever for a number of issues that our Federal government will need to address throughout the course of the upcoming decades of the first half of the 21st century.

In addition to defining precise borders, this treaty addresses the issues of mineral and petroleum rights, constructing international subsea pipelines and telecommunications lines, commercial fishing rights, commercial freight vessels, resolving disputes regarding salvage rights, law enforcement along coastal borders, preventing international smuggling of narcotics, weapons, counterfeit merchandise and human trafficking along coastal borders as well as rescue missions during emergency situations and natural disasters.

In our May 22nd, 2016 issue, I’d written an article in which I’d discussed the coastal  waterways between Maine and New Brunswick, between Washington and British Columbia, between Alaska and British Columbia, and a section of the Arctic which borders northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory which are currently claimed by both Canada and the U.S.  Decisions regarding commercial fishing rights, tourism revenue, recreational fishing and mineral exploration need to be made regarding all of these waterways, and it there is still no clear agreement between the U.S. and the Canadian governments as to precisely where our borders within these aforementioned waterways are located.  The Canadian government ratified the UNCLOS in 2003, though without the U.S. government ratifying the treaty, there are no easy ways to resolve any of these issues.

Those who read the articles that I write for The Pavlovic Today know that I try to keep up with the current research relating to green technologies.  However, even if all issues relating to industrial pollution were to be solved within the next few years (which no one actually believes is possible yet), most credible climatologists believe that it will take many decades to reverse the effects of global warming.  As temperatures rise, arctic glaciers keep melting and ships can in fact now travel through the Northwest Passage is now possible during the warmest parts of the summer months.  Decisions regarding allowing commercial cargo ships, fishing ships, military ships as well as cruise ships to travel through the Northwest Passage need to be made, as well as precisely where ships will be crossing through international borders between Russia, the U.S., and Canada, where customs inspectors will need to board and inspect ships, and which governments, if any will be receiving tax revenue from ships that travel through this region.  There is still no agreement between the governments of the U.S., Russia, and Canada regarding where the boundaries within the Northwest Passage are now located or who is going to resolve those decisions.  If we were to ratify this treaty, this would solve all of these disputes about these coastal waterways.

The disputed waterways in the Beaufort Sea are becoming increasingly important to solve because someone has to decide how much of the sea is to be set aside as a marine wildlife refuge, and what sections, if any are to be opened for mineral exploration or for commercial or recreational fishing.  With both the U.S. as well as Canada claiming a section of the Beaufort Sea which borders Alaska and the Yukon territory, it is not clear who will be making these decisions regarding this sea in future years.  At present, both countries have banned commercial fishing in the Beaufort Sea, though mineral exploration is still permitted.

There are also three uninhabited Caribbean islands, Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank and Baja Nuevo Bank whose ownership is presently claimed by the U.S. as well as other countries, including Jamaica, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and Colombia.  Although there are no residents on any of these three islands, issues relating to whether or not these should become wildlife refuges or whether they should be open to commercial fishing or mineral exploration need to be addressed, and with their ownership in dispute, no one will be able to address these issues.  If the U.S. were to ratify the UNCLOS, this could become a possible means to effectively solve the ownership of these three disputed islands.

We also had a disputed waterway boundary with the government of Mexico regarding precisely where our coastal waterway borders within the Gulf Of Mexico are to be located due to the definition of the outer continental shelf.  The Clinton administration had worked with the Zedillo administration in Mexico to address this issue, and this particular dispute was resolved in June of 2000.  This dispute was resolved with a bilateral agreement, this dispute could have very easily been avoided entirely if the U.S. government had ratified the UNCLOS, and the governments of any of the countries that are located within the northern regions of the Caribbean Sea could easily begin to dispute these same coastal waterway boundaries if we don’t ratify the UNCLOS.

In recent months, we’ve been seeing stories in newspapers and on television news shows showing that the PRC’s Ministry Of National Defense seems to be constructing artificial islands in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which defense experts believe are probably intended to house missiles.  The government of the PRC has repeatedly denied that these artificial islands that they are constructing are intended for defense purposes, however satellite surveillance has revealed that while there is no commercial fishing equipment or equipment related to industrial mineral exploration or petroleum drilling located anywhere on any of these newly created islands, the PRC is presently moving a lot of military equipment onto them.

Our media was very quick to point out that the PRC’s construction of these islands is a violation of the UNCLOS.  However I saw notably little mention on television news shows or newspapers in the U.S. of the fact that if our government attempts to criticize the PRC for violating the terms UNCLOS treaty, our government’s commentary will be very difficult for any other countries to take seriously, because while the PRC did ratify the UNCLOS in 1994, we have yet to do so here.

So why aren’t we hearing more about this treaty?

I also wish that I could provide some more detailed answers to that question.  The mainstream television news shows and newspapers seem to mostly concentrate their efforts on covering the issues that candidates and politicians are paying attention to, and they also cover issues that candidates and politicians are ignoring when those issues cause serious problems.  If candidates and politicians are ignoring an issue, but that issue is not causing obvious or immediate problems, we usually don’t hear much about it.  Most UN treaties and conventions are not a particularly popular topic in the U.S., UN treaties and conventions have been a particularly unpopular topic in the U.S. dating back to earliest sessions of the United Nations back in 1946.  You’ll find no shortage of articles about UN conventions and treaties in academic journals such as Political Science Quarterly or Foreign Affairs, but articles or segments about these treaties only appear very infrequently on television news shows and newspapers in the U.S., or in the “U.S./ Americas” sections of foreign-based news shows and the newspapers in other countries.  Occasionally, you’ll find segments on some of the news shows on PBS which mention UN treaties, but I only see the news shows on PBS mentioning treaties such as the UNCLOS infrequently too.

For those who have followed 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and the 2016 Presidential campaigns closely, do you recall any mention of The United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea by either of the two major parties?

There is a reason for that.  Candidates from the two major parties understand that many millions of Americans, the “silent majority” to borrow a phrase from the Nixon administration’s speech writers from the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, are not terribly comfortable with the entire concept that international law supersedes the authority of domestic U.S. law.  Candidates from the two major parties know that once they begin proposing ratifying a number of UN treaties and conventions, they are fast-tracking themselves to an almost certain loss of millions of votes.

Why?  Where does this fear of UN treaties and conventions come from?  Again, if we look at the last 20+ years of Presidential campaigns, we’ll see hints of answers.  It seems that some conservatives do still feel that our military and our government are subject to what they refer to as “God’s Laws,” and that is the only higher authority that they are willing to recognize.  From what I keep reading, much of the religious right does seem to be notably uninterested in UN treaties and conventions, but they are not the entirety of the reason that we hear so little about UN treaties and conventions in the mainstream media; the religious right represents certain segments of the voting population.  For the most part, I think that people who are intimidated by UN treaties really just aren’t familiar with what many of these treaties are intended to accomplish.

The issues that the UNCLOS addresses are all non-emergency issues.  Leaving the ambiguities about our coastal borders with Canada and Mexico, a handful of unpopulated Caribbean atolls and the Arctic seabed will not result in riots, skirmishes or wars, for the most part peoples’ daily lives will not be immediately impacted, and so our government’s continued refusal to consider ratifying these treaties will largely go unnoticed.

However as the host country of the main branch offices of the UN Headquarters, if we do want to show the rest of the world that we are willing to show the same respect for international law, international treaties and international conventions that many other governments do, then we need to ratify a number of UN treaties, including the UNCLOS.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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