Politics & Policy

The Mysterious Case of the Law of the Sea

Law-enforcement agencies, in their efforts to solve crimes, look for “signature” patterns — a regular alias, an explosive used to crack safes, a particular method of breaking into homes — that point to the identity of the perpetrator. Maybe the FBI should look into the “Mysterious Case of the Law of the Sea,” which is an attempt to smuggle through the U.S. Senate a transfer of sovereignty from the U.S. to the United Nations — without even waking the senators up.

#ad#Who could propose such a daring crime? Consider the following clues: There have been two clear attempts in recent years to get the Law of the Sea — or as it is known to Interpol, “The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” — ratified without holding proper hearings that include respected and respectable critics of UNCLOS. Remember anything else recently that was intended to be rushed through Congress without proper scrutiny? Was it perhaps the proposed “comprehensive” immigration reform? Exactly so.

Do “helpful” stories of no usual interest suddenly make headlines just before some controversial legislation is about to be discussed? You are perhaps thinking of those (unseasonal) reports that “crops were rotting” in the fields, which appeared shortly before Congress was due to discuss extending and expanding an agricultural-immigrant worker program. Such reports bear a curious resemblance, do they not, to recent stories that oil discovered under the North Pole makes it essential that the U.S. have the backing of UNCLOS in order to contest Russian claims north of the Arctic Circle?

And, finally, there is the modus operandi of barefaced lying: “No, officer, that’s not an amnesty there. Nothing like an amnesty, in fact. Take our word for it.” On this occasion, the claims made for UNCLOS are no more credible than those about amnesty, merely more numerous. For instance, Sen. Richard Lugar is on record as arguing that this issue really has nothing to do with the U.N., and that it’s just a historical accident of no significance that UNCLOS has “United Nations” in its title. Yet the treaty states plainly that it is “in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations as set forth in the Charter.” And the staff in two UNCLOS agencies are already signed on to the U.N. pension scheme. Hmmm.

We could cite other examples. But enough has surely been written to demonstrate that the selling of UNCLOS is a white-collar crime that has the fingerprints of the Bush administration all over it. Yes, the White House has allies — the usual suspects in fact: the Democrats and some Republicans, the U.S. State Department, the NGOs of the Left, international civil servants, law professors seeking another treaty as pretext to read their own opinions into law, and above all what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte has called “transnational progressives” (or, for short, Tranzis).

So why is the Bush administration strongly urging passage of UNCLOS?

The reason has little or nothing to do with the value of UNCLOS to the U.S. Its codification of existing maritime law, while modestly useful, grants the U.S. no rights it does not already possess under earlier and customary law. Those who argue, as U.S. Navy lawyers do, that it will help the Navy assert American rights over North Pole oil (always supposing such oil exists in large quantities) must explain (a) why UNCLOS would be certain to support the American case once we had accepted its authority by joining the treaty; (b) who would enforce a favorable UNCLOS ruling over Russian or other objections apart from — the U.S. Navy; and (c) if other powers would be required to help the U.S. enforce a favorable decision under (b), exactly why the U.S. Navy would not be similarly required by UNCLOS to enforce decisions favorable to third parties in other disputes of no concern to the U.S.

The short answer is that the U.S. gains nothing important under UNCLOS. What we lose is that we submit to UNCLOS authority on a range of maritime rights we currently enjoy by virtue of being a sovereign nation-state — and currently exercise in, for instance, the Proliferation Security Initiative. In addition, we will acquiesce to three new supra-national agencies (which are either part of the U.N. system or responsible to no one); to their regulation of U.S. corporations’ access to seabed mineral resources; and, in effect, to the first independent international taxing authority.

Why do this?

Well, it seems to be part of a pattern. That pattern includes also the astonishing decision of the Bush White House to seek the overriding of Texas law on the death penalty in deference to the World Court. What we are seeing is an outbreak of Tranzi-ism in the administration. Cowed by accusations of earlier “unilateralism,” the administration now bends over backwards to placate the “international community.” The permanent bureaucracy at the U.S. State Department has long been in the grip of this tendency. Since the departure of John Bolton, our diplomatic officialdom seems to have kept a pliant administration, including both president and secretary of state, under its sway. As a result we may soon be relying on a U.N. bureaucracy to maintain the freedom of the seas essential to our trade, commerce, and military alliances.

No doubt this policy is cheaper than a larger Navy — but it is no substitute for one.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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