Despite being on and off the White House’s agenda since 1982, the Convention of the Law of the Sea, or Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), has never been ratified into US law. The United Nations’ treaty is ratified by 163 countries and the European Union, but not the United States, who were present in all meetings from 1973-1982.

The treaty’s main objective is to define the right and uses of the world’s oceans by establishing borders, economic exclusive zones, establishing continental shelf jurisdiction, environmental guidelines and management criteria.

"The United Nations’ treaty is ratified by 163 countries and the European Union, but not the United States."

And it is exactly this exclusivity which has made LOST a sticky point in US politics. Republican critics have regularly expounded their general mistrust in allowing external law makers to dictate how the world’s most powerful country can use its surrounding waters. But the fact of the matter is, many senior US politicians – the President himself, John Kerry, Hilary Clinton and five former Republican secretaries of state – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – all support it.

In Obama’s first term as President the treaty was first raised by Hilary Clinton, who said it was a priority for her. She would later testify in 2012 to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations arguing for the ratification of the treaty. A further six ‘star’ witnesses made up of generals and admirals also testified in its favour, followed by a number of organisations, such as the American Petroleum Association.

However, in July this year, exerting their power in the house, 34 Republican Senators signed a letter to the Committee Chairman John Kerry pledging to vote against the treaty if it was raised for ratification. Thirty-four votes is enough to halt its ratification, as it would require two-thirds of the votes to pass. The treaty was again put on ice.

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By GlobalData

What is to be gained by ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty?

The President, the military and offshore oil and gas industries are all in favour of ratifying the treaty because it offers many home advantages. For example, LOST outlines clear maritime borders – which are set at 200 nautical miles from the edge of the territorial sea – that are embedded into an established international law.

"In Obama’s first term as President the treaty was first raised by Hilary Clinton, who said it was a priority for her."

Due to this, maritime border disputes, which can frustrate US military action, delay offshore mining and hinder business arrangements, can be more easily settled by addressing what is laid out in the treaty and is therefore law; ultimately harmonising business arrangements, protecting national security and resulting in undisputed, uninterrupted offshore mining and navel pursuits.

The United States would have no powers over foreign shipping but absolute rights over petroleum resources. According to the treaty’s maritime border mapping, America has the biggest share of the treaties scope, with 3.36 million square miles that would be legally protected.

Furthermore, the treaty allows governments to exercise sovereign rights over natural resources within the extended continental shelf area but also beyond its territory, for which US companies could apply for operating licenses.

Why is a seabed treaty so important now?

If the US has managed for the past 30-odd years without ratifying the treaty – why is it so important now? Because, if the US does not ratify LOST soon its right to drill certain areas of the Arctic Ocean could be disputed. All other countries in the Arctic have ratified the law. If any possible border disputes should occur, then other countries would have the clarity of the treaty to fall back on whereas the United States would have no legal rights whatsoever.

"The United States would have no powers over foreign shipping but absolute rights over petroleum resources."

Hilary Clinton, a supporter of the treaty, put it simply: "If people start drilling in areas that are now ice-free most of the year, and we don’t know where they can or can’t drill or whether we can, we’re going to be disadvantaged."

Earlier in the month former Senator John Kerry offered his opinion: "By joining the treaty we could lock in a favourable set of navigational freedoms and maximize US influence in treaty bodies.

"Law of the Sea is fundamentally a conservative and modest treaty that supports the military and the economic interest of our nation."

Not only will the treaty help to quickly resolve any possible disputes in the Arctic – which according to a US Geological Survey has an estimated 44 to 157 billion barrels of oil and 299 to 1,547 trillion cubic feet of gas – it will also assist and insist on protection of the marine environment, freedom for scientific research on the high seas and offer a legal regime for controlling mineral resource exploitation. If America continues to shun LOST it faces being well and truly left out in the cold.

What is the likelihood of the treaty being signed anytime soon?

There is a good possibility ratification could come in 2013 when Shell starts up drilling again and the issue is put back on the agenda. If Republicans attempted to block the treaty once again it would surely be seen as a purely bitter political move.

Another Obama administration is the best chance the US has of getting the treaty ratified. After nearly 30 years contesting and changing and rejecting the treaty, it seems those unafraid of international governance now have a treaty they feel they can live with.

A stronger majority in the house should also work in favour of the treaty being passed, which could happen after the Congressional Elections in a couple of years if Democrats win more seats in the house.

Leaders before Obama – Bill Clinton, George Bush jr – were in favour of the treaty but didn’t attempt to push it through with any urgency, but there was less urgency then than there is now, because Arctic drilling is now imminent from all sides.

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