Who’s Afraid of UNCLOS?

Political consensus is often a shibboleth.  Pitched battle in the political trenches is more typical.  But sometimes the stars align and those across the ideological spectrum do come together.  Such occasions are worth savoring, as they are both rare and fleeting.  The consensus regarding the benefits of US accession to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should give reason to rejoice.  A handful of reactionaries are out to spoil the party, though.

UNCLOS codifies rules for the use of the world’s oceans.  It establishes guidelines for businesses seeking to exploit marine resources and provides for the management and protection of the aquatic environment.  UNCLOS also recognizes the right of innocent passage for vessels in international waters, which is of particular importance to the US, since its large naval fleet traverses the world’s oceans.  These provisions help explain why 154 countries have already ratified UNCLOS.  But the US remains on the sidelines.

Many would like that to change.  The treaty’s advocates run the ideological spectrum from left to right.  They include private as well as public sector stakeholders.  The Bush Administration supports US accession to UNCLOS, as do the US Navy and Coast Guard, deep-sea mining and other companies, and most, if not all, Democrats in the Senate (treaties are considered in that chamber).  But a small group of contrarians that includes Louisiana Senator David Vitter does not, and they’re bracing for a fight.

Remember Vitter?  He made national news when he was identified as a client of an escort service—an embarrassment for any public official, more so when that official is a “family values” religious conservative.  Vitter is up for re-election, and is in for a tough fight.  He’s has targeted UNCLOS to rally the faithful.  In a fundraising letter, Vitter pulls out all the stops.  He claims UNCLOS would cede American national security to the United Nations, and that it would imperil the economy by burdening industry with environmental regulations.

Vitter’s letter is also teeming with bizarre errors.  It claims, for example, that it will take 41 votes in the Senate to prevent UNCLOS’ ratification.  In fact, any treaty’s approval requires the support of two-thirds of those voting and present in the Senate, so no more than 34 opponents would be necessary to defeat UNCLOS.  Perhaps Vitter’s zeal has clouded his memory of Senate rules.  Harder to explain is his math.

Vitter states in the letter his goal of raising $1 million to finance a campaign to scuttle UNCLOS.  Yet, earlier in the same document, he says that he’s “willing to spend over $250,000 in the next critical few months” to defeat the treaty.  Where’s the other $750,000 going?  Not on call girls, one hopes.  

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