Winnefeld: Time for U.S. to Join Law of Sea Convention

WASHINGTON, June 14, 2012 — Acces­sion to the long­stand­ing Unit­ed Nations Law of the Sea Con­ven­tion will have a pos­i­tive impact on U.S. oper­a­tions across the mar­itime domain, the vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.

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In tes­ti­mo­ny before the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, Navy Adm. James A. Win­nefeld Jr. called him­self a career sailor and for­mer com­bat­ant com­man­der who has come to his own judg­ment on the val­ue for the Unit­ed States of the treaty’s legal frame­work gov­ern­ing uses of the oceans. Win­nefeld appeared before the pan­el with five of the nation’s top mil­i­tary offi­cers.

It is “a priv­i­lege to appear along­side anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of mil­i­tary lead­ers,” he said, “as we join in shar­ing the view that now is the time for the Unit­ed States to join the Law of the Sea Con­ven­tion.”

The treaty opened for sig­na­ture in Decem­ber 1982 and became effec­tive in Novem­ber 1994, after 60 coun­tries had signed. Today, 162 par­ties — includ­ing most close U.S. allies — have rat­i­fied the Law of the Sea Con­ven­tion.

“The con­ven­tion improves on pre­vi­ous agree­ments, includ­ing the 1958 Gene­va Con­ven­tion,” Win­nefeld said.

The treaty will pro­tect U.S. access to the mar­itime domain, for­ti­fy U.S. cred­i­bil­i­ty as the world’s lead­ing naval pow­er, the admi­ral added, and will allow the Unit­ed States to bring to bear the full force of its influ­ence on mar­itime dis­putes.

“In short,” he said, “it pre­serves what we have and it gives us yet anoth­er tool to engage any nation that would threat­en our mar­itime inter­ests.”

But not every­one agrees that the treaty will ben­e­fit the Unit­ed States, Win­nefeld acknowl­edged, adding that defense offi­cials take these con­cerns seri­ous­ly.

“Some say that join­ing the con­ven­tion would result in a loss of sov­er­eign­ty for the Unit­ed States. I believe just the oppo­site to be true,” the admi­ral said. “Some would say … that join­ing the con­ven­tion will open U.S. Navy oper­a­tions to the juris­dic­tion of inter­na­tion­al courts. We know this is not true.”

In 2007, the Sen­ate pro­posed what it called “dec­la­ra­tions and under­stand­ings” to the treaty that specif­i­cal­ly express the right to exempt mil­i­tary activ­i­ties from the con­ven­tion, Win­nefeld said. “Many oth­er nations that have acced­ed [or rat­i­fied the treaty] have already exempt­ed their mil­i­tary activ­i­ties from the treaty with­out dis­pute,” he not­ed.

Some believe the con­ven­tion would require the Unit­ed States to sur­ren­der its sov­er­eign­ty over war­ships and oth­er mil­i­tary ves­sels, the admi­ral said.

“I can assure you that we will not let this hap­pen and the con­ven­tion does not require it,” he told the Sen­ate pan­el. “If any­thing, it fur­ther pro­tects our sov­er­eign­ty in this regard well before we would have to resort to any use of force.”

Win­nefeld added that join­ing the con­ven­tion will pro­tect the Unit­ed States from “ongo­ing and per­sis­tent efforts on the part of a num­ber of nations, includ­ing those with grow­ing eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er, to advance their nation­al laws and set prece­dents that could restrict our mar­itime activ­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the bounds of their exclu­sive eco­nom­ic zones.”

The term “law­fare” describes such efforts to erode the pro­tec­tions of cus­tom­ary inter­na­tion­al law, he said.

“It’s a trend that’s real and press­ing and that could place your Navy at legal dis­ad­van­tage unless we join the con­ven­tion,” the admi­ral said. “And the nations that would chal­lenge us in this and oth­er ways are, frankly, delight­ed that we are not a par­ty to the con­ven­tion.”

Win­nefeld told the sen­a­tors that along with Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta and Army Gen. Mar­tin E. Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he finds it awk­ward to sug­gest that oth­er nations should fol­low rules to which the Unit­ed States has not yet agreed. Rat­i­fy­ing the treaty will give the Unit­ed States the abil­i­ty to influ­ence key deci­sions that could affect the nation’s sov­er­eign rights and those of its part­ners and friends in the Arc­tic and else­where, he said. “This grows more impor­tant each day,” he added.

The real ques­tion, Win­nefeld said, is whether the Unit­ed States will choose to lead in the mar­itime envi­ron­ment from the inside or fol­low from the out­side.

U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers over two decades have stud­ied the prob­lem close­ly and arrived at the same con­clu­sion, Win­nefeld said: “that rat­i­fi­ca­tion is in our best inter­ests.”

“I join these offi­cers, includ­ing every chair­man of the Joint Chiefs since 1994, in giv­ing my sup­port to the Law of the Sea Con­ven­tion and in ask­ing for your advice and con­sent,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)