On May 15, President Bush offered further evidence that he has strayed far from traditional Reaganite Republican principles by urging the Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty.
With a Democratic majority, ratification has become a possibility.
It would be a mistake.
The Law of the Sea Treaty was negotiated between 1973 and 1982, back in the era when, as author Doug Bandow put it in a recent report for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “socialism was seen as the wave of the future.”
Most of its provisions, regarding rights of passage and exclusive economic rights in territorial waters, are not especially controversial, since they mainly codify existing international law.
The objectionable provisions are mostly contained in Article XI, which caused President Reagan to reject it. It declares the resources on the seabed beyond any country’s international waters to be “the common heritage of mankind,” not to be owned by anybody.
This lofty declaration is implemented by the creation of an International Seabed Authority, which would issue licenses, collect taxes, and redistribute wealth on deep sea mining operations, and something called the Enterprise, which would actually mine the ocean floor.
Thus not “all mankind,” but a discrete group of unelected bureaucrats would control access to the potentially lucrative mineral resources in international sea beds. This would create endless red tape, political favoritism and corruption.
The Clinton administration announced in 1994 that the United States would treat the treaty as binding, but the Senate still declined to ratify the treaty. Now President Bush has urged the Senate to ratify the whole treaty.
A much less ambitious international regime would be a better way to encourage the safe exploitation of the oceans’ mineral resources.
A modest international body could simply record claims to portions of the seabed believed to contain significant resources, from private companies, countries, or even individuals. If the entity claiming a piece of the seabed was unable to retrieve the resources after a reasonable period of time, the claim would expire.
Such a market-friendly system would be much more likely to encourage responsible exploitation of deep-sea resources than the convoluted international bureaucracy set up under the Law of the Sea Treaty. Then Article XI could be eliminated from the treaty and the U.S. could ratify it without significant reservations.
The first step toward this or some other sensible approach to harvesting resources at the bottom of the sea, however, is for the U.S. Senate once again to decline to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty in its existing form.
A market-friendly system is more likely to encourage responsible exploitation of resources than the convoluted bureaucracy set up by the Law of the Sea Treaty.