The Obama administration and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) are beginning a new push to seek ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known around Washington simply as the Law of the Sea Treaty.
The treaty, which came into force in 1994, established rules of the road for operating in international waters and set forth a regime for determining mineral and other rights beneath the ocean floor. Since then, 161 countries have signed on, as well as the European Union, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it.
In fact, the treaty has never come up for a full vote, despite support from multiple administrations, Democrats, and the Navy, which views it as needed to allow the United States to fully participate in the growing multinational system that governs the open seas. It is vigorously opposed by some Republicans, who argue that signing it would be tantamount to an abandonment of U.S. sovereignty.
Kerry's efforts to initiate the months-long ratification process on the treaty began last year. He has met with a host of senators on the issue, and his staff has been consulting with businesses and the military and respected national security experts in both parties. But the drive to set up hearings to promote the bill stalled.
Hill staffers say that Kerry's committee counterpart Richard Lugar (R-IN) did not want the ratification process to begin before his primary, because he was inclined to support the treaty but recognized that his support could be used against him politically. But with Lugar now out of the way, the ratification process is back on track.
Kerry will soon announce the first hearing, which will be made up of a panel of high-ranking military officials, The Cable has learned. It will be a "24-star hearing," meaning the panel will have six military officers with four stars each.
"Senator Kerry has heard for a long time that it'd be helpful for the committee to hold some hearings and review a treaty that hasn't been examined since 2007. The Senate has experienced massive turnover since that period, with 30 new senators," Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth told The Cable.
She denied, however, that the timing of Lugar's primary was the reason for the delay.
"Senator Kerry considered holding hearings last year, but it wasn't feasible after he was asked to serve on the Super Committee, and there have been other urgent issues from Iran to Syria and the State Department budget that have required the [SFRC's] immediate attention this spring," said Seth. "But now, after hearing from conservative-minded businesses, national security experts of both parties, and the military, all of whom strongly support the treaty, Senator Kerry decided the time was right to initiate some hearings and he hopes they'll be helpful for the committee."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also pushed for a new ratification process to pass the treaty in Wednesday remarks at a Law of the Sea symposium in Washington. Panetta called on the Senate to embrace Lugar's bipartisan spirit.
"Our country desperately needs the bipartisan spirit he embodied. It would be an enormous tribute to Senator Lugar's distinguished record to accede to this convention on his watch," Panetta said.
He also laid out the administration's main arguments in favor or the treaty: that U.S. accession to the treaty would allow the United States to secure mineral rights in a larger geographical area, would ensure freedom of navigation for U.S. ships, and would give the country better leverage for claims in the Arctic.
Panetta warned that in failing to ratify the treaty, the United States would "give up the strongest legal footing for our actions."
"We potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues -- just as we're pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere," he said. "How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven't officially accepted those rules?"