Law of the Sea Treaty Could Prove Dangerous to America

As if the war in Iraq and the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack weren’t enough to worry about, the Bush administration may have decided to resurrect one of the worst foreign-policy ideas to come along in decades: the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Those with long memories may recall that President Reagan refused to sign the UN-inspired Law of the Sea Treaty in 1982, after his administration’s efforts to make the pact acceptable to the U.S. were roundly rejected by a coalition of developing and communist countries.  The treaty’s supporters now claim it has been “fixed,” with the provisions Reagan objected to having been removed.1  A closer look, however, reveals a deeply flawed document still at odds with U.S. interests.

Ostensibly, the treaty establishes an international consensus on the extent of jurisdiction countries may exercise off their coasts and allocates rights and duties among nations in all maritime areas.2  In reality, the treaty — then as now — represents a fundamental assault on American sovereignty, one which is all the more troubling in this age of global terrorism.

Aside from killing as many civilians as possible, Al Qaeda and its allies are keen on inflicting economic disruption and environmental degradation on their enemies.  To this end, one of the potentially most devastating weapons in the terrorists’ arsenal is the hijacked supertanker.  When loaded with fuel and manned by terrorists, these behemoths can be scuttled or blown up, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil and other toxic materials in or near our coastal waters.  Yet, taken together, the treaty’s provisions on the environment, navigation, and the high seas are woefully inadequate to meet this kind of unconventional threat and actually make it more likely.3

This point was made abundantly clear by Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  “If, for instance, foreign vessels operating on the high seas do not fit into one of three categories (i.e., they are engaged in piracy, flying no flag or transmitting radio broadcasts), [the treaty] would prohibit U.S. Navy of Coast Guard vessels from intercepting, searching or seizing them,” he noted.4

What’s more, the treaty undercuts the Bush administration’s comprehensive and innovative plan to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI.  This U.S.-led multinational program of high-seas interdiction, boarding, and searching of vessels suspected of carrying WMD is, as Mr. Gaffney pointed out, barred by the Law of the Seas Treaty.

Author and defense consultant John M. Leitner, whose involvement with negotiating the treaty goes back to the 1970s, fears that the pact “would effectively gut our ability to intercept the vessels of terrorists or hostile foreign governments even if they were transporting nuclear weapons.”5 “We must ensure,” he adds, “that we are not binding the government of the United States to a legal regime that makes us more vulnerable and trades the lives of our innocent citizens for the sake of participating in yet another unnecessary treaty.”6     

Concerns about national security and homeland defense are not the only reasons to be concerned about the treaty.  Among other things, the treaty creates a supranational regulatory agency, the International Seabed Administration, complete with its own judicial process and the authority to regulate seven-tenths of the world’s surface.  It would be staffed by unelected and unaccountable international bureaucrats.7  “The creation of yet another International Court,” Mr. Leitner notes, “where the United States or our citizens can be dragged before politically motivated foreign jurists to adjudicate and set penalties is not a pleasant prospect.”8

No, it’s not.

Dr. Bonner Cohen is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].


1. John F. Turner, assistant secretary of state, Bureau of Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Testimony before the U. S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “The Law of the Sea Treaty,” 109th Congress, March 23, 2004.

2. Turner, Testimony.

3. Peter M. Leitner, Testimony before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “The Law of the Sea Treaty,” 109th Congress, March 23, 2004.

4. Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., Testimony before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “The Law of the Sea Treaty,” 109th Congress, March 23, 2004.

5. Leitner, Testimony.

6. Leitner, Testimony.

7. Gaffney, Testimony.

8. Leitner, Testimony.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.