Article published Nov 12, 2007
November 12, 2007
By David R. Sands -
Can the Law of the Sea restrain the race to the Pole?
An old-fashioned, flag-planting, claim-staking fight for the Arctic has broken out just as the Senate prepares for a difficult ratification vote on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty.
The North Pole knockdown, featuring the U.S., Russia and three other Arctic states, adds fresh fuel to the heated debate over a treaty that has languished in Congress for more than a decade.
"We are an Arctic nation because of Alaska," said Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who broke from fellow conservative Republicans to back the Law of the Sea treaty last month at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
"It's incredibly important to us to be sitting at the table with the Russians and others when the decisions about the Arctic are being made," she said.
Some 155 nations have ratified the treaty since it was signed in 1982. President Reagan refused to sign the pact, objecting to provisions for the international regulation of deep-sea mining. President Clinton sent an amended version of the treaty to the Senate in 1994, but it repeatedly has failed to win approval, most recently in 2004.
Opponents of the U.N.-backed accord vow to defeat the treaty yet again this year, despite strong backing from President Bush, all the U.S. military services, the American Bar Association and leading business and environmental lobbies.
By last week, every major candidate for the Republican presidential nomination had come out against the treaty, with their views heavily influenced by a varied group of conservative legal scholars, defense analysts, talk-show hosts, sovereignty advocates and anti-U.N. activists.
"The United States can little afford to have its sovereignty directly challenged by this treaty, and we must activate the conservative grass-roots base to rise up in defense of our country and our sovereignty," conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich said.
Cliff Kincaid, an anti-U.N. activist and president of America's Survival Inc., said the U.S. does not need the Law of the Sea treaty to press its claims to the Arctic and its mineral and energy riches.
"Nobody bothers to point out that [U.S. Admiral Richard] Byrd flew over the North Pole for the United States 80 years ago," he said.
The Law of the Sea treaty, designed to set the rules of the road for the world's oceans, ironically may have spurred the Arctic sweepstakes.
When two Russian deep-water submersibles planted a corrosion-resistant titanium Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole on Aug. 2, they were not violating the treaty, but trying to strengthen Russia's claim under it.
A key provision of the treaty gives coastal states exclusive rights to maritime resources within 230 miles of their shoreline. But signatories can nearly double their territorial claim if they can prove to a Law of the Sea tribunal that their underwater continental shelf extends beyond the coast.
Many countries, including Russia, face a 2009 deadline to submit a final scientific claim for the extent of their continental shelves — and thus for their right to exclusive privileges further into the ocean. U.S. treaty supporters like Mrs. Murkowski say the U.S. will be cut out of the boundary wars if it does not ratify the treaty soon.
But the 2009 deadline also has sparked just the kind of the disorderly rush to put down markers that the treaty's drafters had once hoped to head off.
Moscow had submitted a claim in 2001 to a Law of the Sea panel, asserting ownership of some 463,000 square miles of Arctic seabed based on the extent of its still largely unmapped northern shelf. Russia was told it needed more scientific evidence to support its claim.
Pavel Baev, a researcher at the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to exploit the North Pole submarine venture in August for his own political purposes, restoring Russian national pride and aggressively asserting Russian interests on the global stage.
"The perception in Russia now is that there's a real geopolitical competition going on in [the Arctic]," Mr. Baev said. "You need to move fast to advance your claim because it's every nation for itself."
Whatever the motivation in Russia, the flag-planting sparked an immediate reaction in other states with Arctic claims — the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark.
"You can't go around the world these days dropping flags somewhere," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay said. "This isn't the 14th or 15th century."
Canada has been among the most aggressive nations in asserting its Arctic territorial claims and is in a sharp debate with the U.S. over Ottawa's claim that it controls the Northwest Passage waterway. The fabled sea route, futilely sought five centuries ago by European explorers, has become a live issue once again as accelerated melting of the Arctic ice caps could soon make the strait navigable for significant portions of the year.
The U.S. State Department also belittled the Russian sub mission, and even nations not directly involved in the North Pole sweepstakes expressed alarm.
"The North Pole is not a law-free zone," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in August. "There are international accords, which must be respected by all nations who have interests there."
Denmark, which bases its Arctic claim on its control of Greenland, dispatched a team of some 45 researchers just weeks after the Russian mission to map the seabed north of Greenland. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Ottawa will spend more than $7 billion to build up to eight new ships capable of patrolling the Arctic Ocean.
U.S. officials recently began the third American seabed-mapping expedition in the Arctic since 2003 — all to boost U.S. territorial claims if and when the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea treaty.
Boon or boondoggle?
Expert opinion is divided on the mineral and energy wealth to be tapped in the Arctic.
Breathless projections that the region could hold a quarter of the world's energy reserves have been tempered in recent days.
An extensive 2006 study by consulting firms Wood Mackenzie and Fugro Robertson concluded that Arctic energy reserves are "significantly less that previous estimates had suggested" and were not likely to pose a serious challenge to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
"This assessment basically calls into question the long-considered view that the Arctic represents one of the last great oil and gas frontiers and a strategic energy-supply cache for the United States," study author Andrew Latham wrote.
It may turn out that the sea routes opened up by melting Arctic ice may prove the bigger long-term economic boon. The Northwest Passage could reshape the world's maritime trade, cutting, for example, the voyage from Tokyo to New York from 11,300 miles to 8,700 miles.
Mr. Baev said Russia may have sacrificed its long-term interests for short-term gain with the flag-planting mission. It may, he said, spur the U.S. to finally ratify the Law of the Sea treaty and unite the four other Arctic claimants against Moscow.
The "main risk" for Moscow, he said, is not confrontation with the U.S. "but that the four Arctic states, plus possibly the United Kingdom ... would join forces against Russia."
Senate sea battle
How the Arctic land grab will affect the coming Senate debate on the Law of the Sea treaty is an open question, but both supporters and opponents of the pact say it will provide a crucial test of U.S. attitudes toward the United Nations and ambitious multilateral agreements on trade, the environment and law.
Conceived as a global pact to establish maritime-navigation practices, the treaty evolved into a far more ambitious program to codify and enforce rules on the high seas.
The lengthy treaty outlines not only coastal sovereignty rights, but navigation practices for commercial and military vessels, environmental protections and exploitation guidelines for mining, fishing, energy exploration and other businesses that tap the wealth of the world's oceans.
Treaty supporters, including such conservative legal experts as University of Virginia law professor John Norton Moore, argue the U.S. was the big winner in the Law of the Sea negotiations.
The U.S. will have a vast exclusive economic zone because of its extensive coastline. U.S. firms will readily exploit the oceans' mineral and energy wealth with clear property rights in place. U.S. military vessels can carry on their global duties while exempt from the treaty's commercial restrictions.
Treaty opponents counter with one big idea — a deep distrust of the United Nations — and a host of objections to specific provisions that they say will hamstring the U.S. military and subject U.S. corporations to an unfriendly, unelected global bureaucracy.
If the treaty drafters had stuck to the original, modest mandate on navigation, "this treaty would have sailed through," according to Heritage Foundation analyst Baker Spring.