The Law of the Sea Treaty is an agreement drawn up by the United Nations and ratified by 162 states and the European Union that governs the oceans. The treaty has been described as a “constitution of the oceans” and was negotiated in the 1970s and early 1980s. Its official title is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The United States has signed the Law of the Sea Treaty but not ratified its participation in the agreement, although several presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have encouraged the U.S. Senate to accede.
The treaty also has the support of conservatives such as Sarah Palin, and both the business community including the American Petroleum Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce and environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Here are the important dates in the controversy surrounding the Law of the Sea Treaty:
July 1982: Reagan Refuses to Sign Treaty
President Ronald Reagan announces his opposition to the treaty and refuses to sign it based partly on his broad belief that the ocean’s resources cannot be claimed by any one nation. "While most provisions of the draft convention are acceptable and consistent with United States interests, some major elements of the deep seabed mining regime are not acceptable,” Reagan said.
December 1982: Law of Sea Signed
The Law of the Sea Treaty is adopted by a United Nations conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
November 1994: Treaty Enforced
The treaty takes effect.
October 1994: Clinton Announces Support
U.S. President Bill Clinton signs the Law of the Sea Treaty and sends it to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The committee fails to take action on the agreement after its chairman, Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, expresses concerns. The treaty does not make it to the full Senate, where ratification would require support from a two-thirds majority of its 100 members.
April 2002: Bush Administration Backs Treaty
Mary Beth West, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries under Bush, indicates the administration’s support for joining the treaty, telling a United Nations meeting: “The administration of President George W. Bush supports accession of the United States to the Convention, and we intend to work with the U.S. Senate to move forward on becoming a party.”
May 2007: Bush Calls for Ratification
President George W. Bush calls on the Senate to ratify the treaty. "Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our Armed Forces worldwide,” Bush said. “It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.”
October 2007: Senate Panel OKs
The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations debates the Law of the Sea Treaty and votes 17 to 4 to send the agreement to the full Senate for a vote. The Senate fails to take up the measure for ratification.
May 2009: New Effort to Ratify
Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announces plans to restart the effort to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty. "I hope we're ready to ratify it. I am going to do everything in my power, but I want to do it on the right schedule," Kerry told The New York Times. His support is a clear signal that Obama is onboard.
July 2010: Obama Supports U.S. in Treaty
Obama adopts the recommendations of the Ocean Policy Task Force, which supports joining the treaty.
May 2012: Another Clinton Pushes Law of Sea
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls on the U.S. Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty by the end of 2012, saying the agreement is "critical to the leadership and security of the United States … U.S. interests are deeply tied to the oceans. No country is in a position to gain more from the Law of the Sea Convention than the United States."