Will Americans rule themselves or be ruled by others — this is to be a great question of the 21st century. An opening scene is currently being played out in the U.S. Senate concerning international courts and supranational institutions.
The Bush administration and the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are pushing ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS or LOST). The U.N. convention established a transnational institution, the International Seabed Authority, to regulate maritime activities for over 70 percent of the earth’s surface.
Supporters contend that it is in America’s interests to join. The core argument is that we need “a seat at the table” to influence the rules. Thus, Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) declares, “we are allowing decisions that will affect our Navy, our ship operators, our off-shore industries . . . to be made without U.S. representation.” Most important, the supporters insist, is that sovereignty and security decisions remain in American hands.
Let us examine the details. Under UNCLOS, disputes between the United States and other parties are settled by “mandatory” (i.e., forced) arbitration. The final decisions are made either by a permanent International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg or by an ad-hoc court. The Hamburg tribunal consists of 21 judges chosen by member nations, many of them unfriendly to the United States. An ad-hoc court would consist of five judges, two chosen by the U.S., two chosen by the other party. The crucial fifth judge is chosen either by the secretary general of the United Nations or the Hamburg tribunal. The decisions are “final” and “binding” with no appeal.
International-law professor Jeremy Rabkin points out that when the Cambodian communists seized the USS Mayaguez in Cambodian waters in 1975, President Ford responded with military force to rescue American sailors and free the ship. He notes this type of action would be problematic under UNCLOS. For example, if a treaty signatory (e.g., China, Burma) seized a U.S. ship in its home waters, under the terms of Law of the Sea Treaty, the U.S. could not free her sailors by force, but would have to submit to mandatory arbitration by the Hamburg tribunal or an ad-hoc court, where the U.S. could very likely lose the case. In any event, vital decisions over American security and American lives would not be made by Americans, but by foreign judges, many of them unsympathetic to American interests (coming as they often do from third-world regimes or EU legal elites).