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Chris Gonsalves

U.S. scientists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy are mapping the ocean floor in an effort to claim territory that holds an estimated 400 billion barrels of untapped undersea oil and gas.

The U.S. is poised to turn much of its authority on the high seas over to international arbiters by ratifying a long-controversial United Nations sea treaty.

Approval of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a 25-year-old international treaty regulating use of the world's oceans, is steaming full speed ahead in the Senate, where committee hearings are set to begin Sept. 27.

The full Senate is likely to ratify the treaty -- which would link U.S. naval actions to those of 155 other member nations -- by year's end.

For decades, critics have derided the 182-page Law of the Sea pact as a threat to U.S. sovereignty and naval independence.

They add that it would create a massive new U.N. bureaucracy (the International Seabed Authority); would give environmentalists a back door to greater regulation; and would hinder the U.S. military's efforts to capture terrorists on the high seas.

&"This is nothing less than a raid on our sovereignty," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., warns Newsmax. "I objected to it when it resurfaced in 2004, and I object to it now as I see it sneaking up on us again. What is this obsession we have for surrendering our jurisdiction to this international body? Nobody can give me a reasonable answer."

Despite those concerns, however, support for the measure has never been stronger.

The treaty has garnered a letter of support from President Bush, favorable testimony from the Navy and Coast Guard, and the backing of at least a dozen oil, gas, and environmental groups.

Originally conceived in the 1930s, UNCLOS was crafted to supersede largely unwritten rules that limited coastal nations' rights to just three miles of ocean.

Although U.N. discussions continued for four decades without much progress, President Truman in 1945 pioneered the extension of territorial waters to include the continental shelf extending from the coast.

As a result, a number of nations, including the United States, set 200-mile territorial-water limits -- some 30 years before UNLCOS was finalized with similar provisions in 1982.

The United States contributed heavily to UNCLOS, taking part in negotiations throughout the Nixon and Carter administrations. However, disagreements over technology sharing and deep-seabed mining provisions kept the United States from signing on under President Reagan.

The Clinton administration added an appendix in the 1990s that simplified the administration of seabed mining, after which it declared the treaty "fixed."

Frank Gaffney, the former Reagan defense official who now heads the Center for Security Policy in Washington, tells Newsmax that treaty advocates don't realize what UNCLOS really entails.

"I doubt any of these new supporters has actually read the entire treaty," he says. "If they read this Marxist document, the issue would be dead."

Gaffney says he will fight against UNCLOS ratification and has created to get the word out.

Critics like Inhofe and Gaffney are up against a formidable alliance of treaty supporters: senior administration officials, military officers, environmentalists, oil executives, and legislators from both sides of the aisle all favor it.

Proponents say the Law of the Sea actually guarantees U.S. ships and planes the right to traverse certain regions where they currently need permission from other governments; protects U.S. fishing interests from foreign poachers; opens up new undersea mineral and energy resources; and adds thousands of miles of seabed to America's territory.

Some 155 nations have signed the treaty. Although there are 41 countries that either haven't signed or haven't ratified the treaty, the United States is the lone holdout among the world's major powers.

"All of the major industrial states have done this except us," says University of Miami law professor Bernard Oxman, a treaty advocate who helped draft the original provisions when he was a young officer in the Navy.

UNCLOS comes up for ratification at a time when melting polar ice is opening new shipping lanes. Countries such as Russia, Canada, and Denmark are racing to lay claim to resource-rich areas under the Arctic Ocean.

"At a time when the United States is being criticized by friends and foes alike as either a Lone Ranger or worse, an arrogant bully, we can demonstrate that we believe international cooperation, done right, can serve America's interests," says Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a vocal supporter of the Law of the Sea.

Both Lugar and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., have indicated they'll try to move UNCLOS ratification out of committee and bring it to a floor vote as quickly as possible.

The most controversial provisions are expected to relate to military sea travel.

For example, UNCLOS places tight restrictions on how ships must exercise their right to "innocent passage" in territorial waters, most notably requiring certain submarines and unmanned vehicles to operate on the surface and show their nation's colors.

Opponents say the restrictions would jeopardize U.S. counterterrorism efforts by limiting the boarding of vessels to only those suspected of drug trafficking, piracy, slave trading, and illegal radio broadcasting. They fear provisions stating that "the high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes" and that signatories must refrain from "any threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" could be used to thwart U.S. naval operations.

"If we had info that some terrorist threat was heading our way on a ship, we would be restricted in what we could do in terms of search and seizure," says Inhofe. "We would have to go through this international body to do that."

David Ridenour, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., tells Newsmax: "The treaty could complicate our efforts to apprehend terrorists or ships our intelligence believes are carrying WMDs by subjecting our actions to review by an international tribunal, a body that is unlikely to be favorable to the United States."

George Mason University law professor Jeremy Rabkin, writing in The Weekly Standard, cites several historical examples of U.S. naval actions that he suggests would be compromised by the Law of the Sea treaty. Among them:

  • The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when President Kennedy ordered the Navy to blockade vessels coming in and out of Cuba.
  • The U.S. response to the 1975 Cambodian seizure of the American vessel USS Mayaguez. President Ford declared the seizure an act of piracy and dispatched Marines to force the ship's release.
  • In the 1980s, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi demanded that foreign vessels obtain his permission before entering the 300-mile-wide Gulf of Sidra. Reagan directed that a carrier task force enter the waters in 1986. Two Libyan patrol boats tried to resist, and were destroyed.

"The Senate should think long and hard before making the U.S. Navy answer to the U.N. version of the Law of the Sea," Rabkin writes.

Those concerns appear to be at odds with the Navy's support for the treaty, however. The Navy's leaders say it would guarantee U.S. access to patrol certain areas.

"We need this treaty to lock in the rights we already have," Rear Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the Navy's judge advocate general, tells The Wall Street Journal.

One reason for the differing perspectives on the treaty is the way disputes are determined. Disagreements among UNCLOS parties are decided by a tribunal based in Hamburg, Germany.

Rabkin concedes that "the treaty can be acceptable if interpreted as we want it to be interpreted." But U.S. interpretations, he says, are up to the international tribunal, adding, "The treaty stipulates that decisions of international arbitration must be treated as 'final' and 'binding.'"

Lugar, however, says opt-out clauses commonly used by more powerful UNCLOS members will keep the treaty from impinging on U.S. military operations.

"Ratifying the treaty will do nothing to change the status quo with respect to U.S. intelligence and submarine activities in the territorial seas of other countries," Lugar says. "We'll continue to operate under the same rules we've relied on for more than 40 years. [We've] specified explicitly that we alone define what constitutes 'military activities' not subject to review."

The Coast Guard is also calling for ratification of UNCLOS, saying global regulation of the sea is good for law enforcement and for the military.

Speaking at a July symposium sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Coast Guard Rear Adm. John E. Crowley said UNCLOS provides "the freedom to conduct the kind of operations we need to conduct.

"In a time of vulnerability to terrorism, it is even more crucial that we have these treaty rights. [UNCLOS] was never intended for military activities, but far from inhibiting the military, it will enable it. Unimpeded travel is necessary to the United States as it enhances the ability of the Navy and Coast Guard to protect U.S. interests around the world."

Bush has issued a statement urging the Senate to ratify UNCLOS, claiming the international pact "will serve national security interests [and] secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted."

"George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan, choosing to follow rather than lead," says Ridenour. "When Reagan assumed office, about 150 nations were backing the treaty.

"He instantly recognized that the treaty wasn't in the U.S.'s interest and launched an intensive lobbying campaign to get other nations to follow his lead. As a result of these efforts, 46 nations rejected the treaty," Ridenour says.

Lugar, however, remains adamant that UNCLOS has evolved and so has the international landscape.

"Failure to move now could directly hurt American interests," he maintains. "Russia has, under terms of the treaty, laid claim to stretches of the Arctic Ocean, hoping to lock up potential oil and gas reserves which could become more accessible as climate change shrinks the polar ice cap. Unless the United States ratifies the treaty, Moscow will be able to press its claims without an American at the table."

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