The last couple of times I’ve written about the United Nations, the theme has generally been as follows: Yes, it’s full of countries who can’t be trusted and will exploit their seat at the table for all sorts of negative gains, but it’s better for the U.S. to have a seat of their own than not, in order to keep a legal eye on them. This is the same reason White House officials and leaders in military and business are calling on the U.S. to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Who’s thwarting their efforts in Congress? Guess.
The above-noted proponents are making essentially the same appeal to diplomatic opportunity that I made. The opponents – mainly Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), big surprise) – aren’t swayed. They are certain that signing the treaty “would undercut U.S. sovereignty, force a redistribution of wealth and stand in for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change that would allow foreign countries to regulate U.S. energy.”
It is true that the treaty would establish general environmental obligations on the high seas. But keep in mind that one essential component is the definition of which parts of the ocean belong to individual countries. The treaty gives sovereign rights to a country’s continental shelf within 200 miles. If the environmental damage happens within that limit, wouldn’t this sovereignty override any regulatory demands from the UN?
Other arguments from Inhofe: The new International Seabed Authority, which would control the ocean outside those 200-mile limits, would have the power to “levy a global tax” on mining companies therein (but is that actually what they’re planning?); it would not permit foreign boarding if the ship being boarded is carrying illegal weapons (isn’t that a problem for security at the destination country?); it would regulate the airspace over territorial waters (so? We regulate the airspace over territorial land); it would subject companies hoping to mine the seabed to new fees and bureaucracy (they don’t seem bothered by that).
In at least one way, this treaty could do more for U.S. ocean sovereignty than Inhofe thinks. The fisheries in Canada’s Maritime provinces used to thrive much more than they do now. Since then, overfishing by foreign ships has been blamed for their downturn. If Canada and other trustworthy nations were to join the U.S. in signing the treaty, we could have more muscle to flex in telling those foreign companies to get out.
It’s perfectly acceptable for Inhofe and his fellow opponents to point out certain aspects of the treaty they find worrisome. But it comes down to this: You may sign the treaty and still not be as influential as you’d like, but if you don’t, it’s certain that you won’t.