If President Bush and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have their way, the United Nations may soon see an expansion of its authority that is as vast as the seas.
With support from the White House, the committee voted in October to approve U.S. participation in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and sent the treaty to the full Senate for ratification. The process hit a snag when conservative senators raised concerns about the treaty, but ratification remains a goal of the Democratic leadership as Congress returns to work this year.
The Convention-also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, or LOST-has been around for decades, and more than 150 nations have signed the pact. The original idea was to codify navigational rights, but LOST quickly grew into a wish list for global socialists.
Under LOST, a United Nations--affiliated bureaucracy called the International Seabed Authority would charge fees for mining rights in waters beyond national jurisdictions and tax the profits of mining companies, sending some of the proceeds to the governments of developing countries. The treaty also requires signatories to deal with land-based pollution that might affect the oceans, and it creates an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to adjudicate disputes.
It was all too much for Ronald Reagan, who in 1982 refused to sign the treaty. In 1994, Bill Clinton signed a revised version of the treaty, but Republicans in the Senate kept it shelved for over a decade until President Bush began pushing to make LOST a priority.
To supporters-including a coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans, environmental and industry groups, and the U.S. Navy-the benefits of U.S. participation in LOST seem obvious. LOST is a fact of international life, they argue, and abstaining from it is not in America's interest. "If we fail to ratify this treaty," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., "we are allowing decisions that will affect our Navy, our ship operators, our off-shore industries, and other maritime interests to be made without U.S. representation."
But opponents say representation in UN-affiliated bodies is overrated. They point to how the UN Human Rights Commission became an anti-American mouthpiece controlled by some of the world's worst dictators, and predict the same type of ganging up on the United States and its interests by the LOST bureaucracies.
They also oppose giving an international body taxing authority over U.S. companies, especially when the tax revenues would create an independent revenue stream for a United Nations that has not proved it can act responsibly without oversight. At the same time, they say, environmentalists would be able to use decisions by the international court to bring suit in U.S. courts to force changes in U.S. environmental laws, diminishing the role of elected legislators in crafting policy.
It all adds up, critics say, to giving authority over the seas and even some activities on U.S. land to groups that do not like the United States. "It would be unthinkable to yield so much of our sovereignty to a large international body in which we have disproportionately small representation," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "To do so would be a gift to those that one day may disagree with American policy or become hostile to our national interests."
But LOST has a very respected constituency firmly on its side: U.S. military leaders. At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on LOST, Lugar was able to boast that the current Joint Chiefs of Staff and several former Chiefs of Naval Operations backed the treaty because of its legal support for maritime rights.
Calling the treaty "the bedrock legal instrument for public order in the world's oceans," Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, told the committee that LOST would raise the military's freedoms on the high seas to the legal level of treaty rights instead of basing such rights on customary international law.
These rights, he argued, are crucial to moving the submarine fleet through choke points; transporting war materiel through the Straits of Gibraltar, Singapore, Malacca, and Hormuz and into Iraq; and deploying aircraft without having to fly over foreign air space: "Our Navy can better protect the United States and the American people if we join the Law of the Sea Convention."
Such arguments have not been enough to persuade GOP presidential candidates, all of whom have announced opposition to the treaty. Sen. John McCain has said that he supports a Law of the Sea but would not vote for this version, while Fred Thompson says he would seek "ironclad assurances" that Reagan's original concerns are addressed: "At a time when customary international law in this area has proven sufficient, I believe the efforts of treaty proponents would be better spent reforming the United Nations." Rudy Giuliani called the treaty "fundamentally flawed." Gov. Mike Huckabee, in opposing LOST, called it "one of the defining issues of our time."
The treaty requires 67 votes in the Senate for ratification, a high enough hurdle that opposition from a bloc of conservative senators kept Democrats from bringing LOST to the Senate floor for a vote late last year. Whether the Law of the Sea becomes the law of the land may depend on how many of those senators are still in office-and which presidential candidate is celebrating-after the November elections.
Capitol Hill lawmakers reconvene this month with a full slate ahead of the election campaign season. Highlights to watch for:
Education: No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization, although action may be pushed to next year.
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): Debate over electronic surveillance will likely dominate an attempt to overhaul the bill.
Mortgage reform: Congress will consider three major pieces of legislation-lending reform, a drive to let judges modify mortgages in bankruptcy proceedings, and modernization of the Federal Housing Administration.
Economic stimulus: While Democrats focus on "targeted and temporary" relief for poor and middle-class families to ward off a recession, Republicans are urging an extension of past tax cuts that are set to expire in 2010.
AIDS: President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief will come up for reauthorization.
Iraq: Congress is expected to modify the Defense Authorization Bill that President Bush vetoed.
Climate change: Senate Democrats may bring the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to a vote in the first half of the year.