March 07, 2005

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Skeptical Senate eyes sea treaty

By Stephen Dinan

Opposition to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is growing among Republicans in the Senate as some of those who voted for it in the past have said they are re-examining their positions.
    Known to supporters by its official acronym, UNCLOS, and to detractors as LOST, for the Law of the Sea Treaty, the group of treaties that makes up the convention was negotiated between 1973 and 1982 and establishes international standards for territorial limits on rights of passage for military, shipping and transport vessels and on seabed mining rights.
    President Reagan refused to sign the treaty in 1982, arguing that one part dealing with deep-sea mining was objectionable. President Clinton later negotiated an addendum he said answered Mr. Reagan's concerns, and submitted the treaty for ratification in 1994. It was held up for years by Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
    Now the Bush administration has called for quick passage, but Senate Republicans are split. Supporters argue that it secures the U.S. Navy's ability to maintain a global reach in the war on terror, while opponents say it risks U.S. sovereignty by including an international tribunal to adjudicate international disputes over the seabed and would impose an international tax in the form of royalties on companies who drill or mine in the deep sea.
    "I am re-examining this. A number of issues have been raised about it that I think are very serious concerns about its impact on the United States," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, who voted for the bill in the Foreign Relations Committee last year. The committee sent the treaty to the Senate floor on a 19-0 vote, but it never received a full floor vote and has been sent back to the committee for further consideration.
    Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican who also voted for the convention in committee, said things will be different this time around.
    "I will be reviewing this treaty with much greater scrutiny than the scant attention it originally received in the Foreign Relations Committee," he said. "I am always skeptical about any treaty that might usurp our nation's sovereignty, and believe that serious concerns have arisen that must be addressed and analyzed."
    Conservative activists have declared opposition to the treaty a "litmus test" for potential Republican presidential candidates, which accounts for some of the renewed focus.
    But opponents have a high hill to climb, particularly because the treaty has the backing of some powerful Republican committee chairmen. Treaty supporters count Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska, Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar of Indiana as supporters.
    Mr. Lugar has been the driving force in recent months, pushing for last year's committee vote and then trying to jump-start the process by getting a firm statement of support for passage from Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearing to be secretary of state.
    Mr. Lugar said in principle conservatives should be supporting a treaty that "expands the ability of American oil and natural gas companies to drill for resources in new areas, solidifies the Navy's rights to traverse the oceans, enshrines U.S. economic sovereignty over our Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 miles off our shore, helps our ocean industries create jobs, and reduces the prospects that Russia will be successful in claiming excessive portions of the Arctic."
    The treaty had unanimous support of Democrats on the committee, and there is no indication that support has slipped.
    Treaties require a two-thirds vote for ratification by the Senate, though, making the growing Republican opposition a serious threat.
    Three Republican senators -- James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- sent a 13-page letter to the Government Accountability Office asking 35 questions about the treaties, including what effect they would have on military operations and whether U.S. courts could use an international tribunal's decisions as precedent for their own decisions preventing such activities as U.S. Navy sonar testing.
    Opponents also fear the international tribunal could be a back door to imposing the global-warming restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol or becoming a substitute for the International Criminal Court.
    Mr. Inhofe also is leading a group of five senators in circulating a letter questioning the tax implications of the treaty based on language requiring payment to the seabed treaty's governing authority of a percentage of revenue from oil, gas or other commercial exploration outside of economic zone waters.
    "By any reasonable definition, this provision would allow a U.N.-affiliated international authority to impose a tax directly on U.S. economic activity," the senators wrote in calling for a hearing on the matter.
    But supporters say the treaty neither grants taxing authority nor erodes sovereignty, but actually enshrines the right of the Navy to go where it needs to go to advance U.S. interests.
    "This is not a question of interpretation," said Bernard H. Oxman, a law professor at the University of Miami, who was part of the U.S. delegation negotiating the convention. "When you read that text, I don't think it gets into a question of interpretation at all. I don't think most of the critics are familiar with this text. They're against it no matter what the text might say."
    Mr. Oxman also accused opponents of forgetting the importance Mr. Reagan attached to the other parts of the convention concerning military operations.
    Last year, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called UNCLOS a "top national-security priority," and Mr. Oxman called it central to fulfilling the president's pledge to fight terrorists wherever they are by helping "secure our global and economic lines of communication."
    "To do that, we have to get there, and we have to get there, to be very blunt, without France's or Spain's or Morocco's say-so. This convention says we have a right to get there even if they don't like it," he said.
    Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the military's support should be enough to secure ratification.
    "It's the right thing to do," Mr. Hagel said. "Every president since it was signed, Republican and Democrat, has supported it. Secretary Rumsfeld, every Navy officer, every chief of naval operations. I mean, I don't know what more credibility you want than having our military leaders support it."
    David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which is leading the conservative opposition, said the treaty's fate rests on three questions: "One, is this something the administration really wants? We don't know the answer to that question. The second question is, is Bill Frist willing to risk everything by being the point man and schedule this thing? The third is, how do his fellow senators react when this debate happens?
    "My suspicion is, this is not at the top of the administration's agenda, and Frist is caught in the middle," Mr. Keene said.
    Mr. Frist, the Senate majority leader and Tennessee Republican, said last week there is no schedule for bringing the treaty to the floor.
    "I want to get them to deal with it at the committee level," he said.
    Mr. Frist wouldn't list his own concerns, but said, "I have some reservations about it."

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