The Debate

Why the US Needs to Ratify UNCLOS

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The Debate

Why the US Needs to Ratify UNCLOS

“This treaty is of paramount importance to American national security interests,” argues Congressman Hank Johnson.

Why the US Needs to Ratify UNCLOS
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos/Released

As U.S. foreign policy and national security efforts execute the well-publicized “pivot to Asia,” force, diplomacy, and politics in the Pacific have been at the forefront of the discussion. I wholeheartedly support the U.S. Senate ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), which is a critical piece of our focus on the Pacific.

This treaty is of paramount importance to American national security interests and our political and economic interests in Asia as well. It offers the legitimacy of the rule of law to our actions, especially in areas that are contested. As retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp succinctly states, “Our legitimacy as a sovereign state and as a world leader … rests with the rule of law.”

From a rule of law standpoint, by signing UNCLOS America will signify its position as a country that values, respects, and upholds a rules-based international order. It reinforces our stance that a “force of arms should not be our only national security instrument” (to quote retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey). It illustrates that we are willing to sit at the same table with our allies and with those we may disagree. It gives a mechanism beyond force to settle differences between sovereign states without infringing on sovereignty itself.

More importantly, ratifying UNCLOS bolsters American legitimacy in international maritime affairs beyond what our unparalleled armed forces are able to secure. The U.S. Navy and our commercial partners have long adhered to the spirit and framework of UNCLOS, while simultaneously expecting other seafaring nations to do the same. Treaty law remains the strongest, binding legal foundation on which global politics and the international order rests. The United States has instead been operating under customary international law, which is easily undermined by the unilateral action of states.

It should come as no surprise then that our allies are confused by our refusal to ratify a treaty that upholds a rules-based approach to maritime conflict while expecting other nations to be bound by those same rules. To quote U.S. Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. (commander of U.S. Pacific Command) from the recent House Armed Services Committee Hearing on February 24 on the Pacific Theater, “I think that in the 21st century our moral standing is affected by the fact that we are not a signatory to UNCLOS.” As the world’s preeminent maritime power and the foremost champion of rule of law, this reluctance to join UNCLOS undermines American economic and national security interests.

Ratifying UNCLOS will afford the United States a stronger position when critical maritime decisions are being debated and negotiated – such as the various territorial disputes between the China and its neighbors. To quote my fellow Armed Services member Rep. Joe Courtney, who said at the same HASC hearing on the Pacific Theater: “…we’re allowing litigation to proceed where the consequences in terms of military strategy and resources of this country in the Asia Pacific could hinge on the outcome of that claim and we’re completely shut out… We’ve done this to ourselves.”

My colleague is exactly right. We have shut ourselves out of an international rule of law based process that the U.S. military upholds around the world – a process that reinforces diplomacy and ensures the freedom of navigation we so passionately defend across the globe. The fact that substantial amendments were made to the treaty in 1994 – at the behest of the United States and which immediately addressed American reservations – underscores how important it is for the United States to be a party to the international process of maritime dispute resolution, rather than being limited to observer status. It’s better to be a part of the conversation and at the table rather than to be sitting outside waiting in line. We have the opportunity to be involved in a critical participatory process that will serve as the foundational basis of maritime law for years to come. Ratifying UNCLOS enables the United States to nominate members to the Law of Sea Tribunal and the Continental Shelf Commission, and confirms our standing to ensure that discussions on the Freedom of Navigation are not inconsistent with American interest.

UNCLOS also allows America to defend her interests beyond freedom of navigation. It supports American businesses that are looking to invest in commercial shipping lanes in the Arctic, in deep-sea mining and telecommunications operations, and in other forms of maritime commerce.

The treaty will extend American interests in the seas and ocean floors beyond the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). American businesses can develop and invest in maritime resources on the Extended Continental Shelf and through the increasingly de-iced Arctic knowing they are supported by the legal certainty and stability of treaty law. This will help protect critical environmental spaces and the interests of the American worker. It is impossible to ignore that UNCLOS unites interests across the spectrum – from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute to leading environmental groups such as the National Resource Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund, to labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Seafarers International Union of North America.

Relying solely on American military power to guarantee our voice is heard and our interests are protected should not be our only geopolitical tool. To preserve our role as the guarantor of security in global commons, we need to embrace the benefits of legal certainty and stability guaranteed by international treaty law. By ratifying UNCLOS, the United States will demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and diplomatic solutions in state-to-state maritime disputes.

This is why I am proud to be an original cosponsor of the bipartisan House resolution reevaluating Congress’ position on the treaty and push for ratification. I’ll continue working with my HASC colleagues on both sides of the aisle to push for ratification. As we pivot to Asia, we must embrace the rule of law and other forms of soft power, in addition to hard power, to ensure American interests are protected today and well into the future.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) sits on the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees. He serves on the Armed Services’ Seapower & Projection Forces Subcommittee as well as the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. 

The piece was previously published by The Washington Diplomat and appears here with permission.