Anarchy on the High Seas

When bullets are to be bitten, never let it be said that I took a step backward. Let me say it: George Bush and the White House are entirely correct — about the Law of the Sea at least.

Twenty-five years after negotiators finally put down their pens on the Law of the Sea Treaty, Bush and the Pentagon have joined with rational Republicans like Richard Lugar and the Democrats to support its belated ratification, pushed along by oil, maritime and telecom lobbies that see the need to end oceanic anarchy.

The Senate foreign relations panel voted 17-4 on October 31 to send it to the full floor for a vote, where it seems likely to win the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Quite apart from the significance of the treaty itself, there is a certain symbolism: this would be the first multilateral treaty of its kind that the US has ratified since Ronald Reagan.

Reaganites may indeed appreciate one of the impulses behind the ratification: the Russian claim to the north pole. Outside the treaty, the US has no means of contesting the claim, which, if successful, would be recognised by almost every nation in the world.

The very first case to go to the Hamburg-based International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea demonstrated the need for it. In 1997, the MV Saiga, an oil tanker registered in St Vincent and the Grenadines, owned by Cypriots, chartered by Swiss, managed by a Scottish company, officered by Ukrainians and crewed by Senegalese, had been bunkering fishing vessels off the coast of Guinea when patrol boats from there seized the ship and detained the crew. Guinea claimed a customs zone that extended 250 miles from its coast. The tribunal ordered the release of the ship and crew on payment of a bond, and, after consideration, it threw out the Guinean claim and ordered the ship and its crew freed. Under the convention, Guinea was not entitled to claim more than 200 miles for its exclusive economic zone.

The Law of the Sea should be an important cause for internationally minded liberals and Democrats, representing as it does a global commitment to the health of the oceans and the rule of law. But their silence is stunning. A quick internet search shows that most of the clucking comes from loony right-wing Chicken Littles who think the sky is falling down. There is a certain ironic satisfaction that the White House is now under fire from the ideologically hardcore foundations that have so far been barraging its liberal enemies.

At this year’s hearings on the treaty at the Senate foreign relations committee, the groups that spoke against ratification, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and the Centre for Security Policy (CSP), depicted the treaty as an undercover version the Kyoto protocol — reminiscent of earlier far-fetched accusations of an undersea land grab by the United Nations.

But money talks as the know-nothings cluck. Last year, Exxon — Big Oil’s last-ditch opponent of the UN Convention on the International Law of the Sea — dropped its financial support for CEI. The lobby now left in the field against ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty reveals the wacko money tail that has been wagging the Republican dog, and, more often than not, converting many Democratic politicians into fawning puppies.

The process was described in an email that Mike Scanlon, the lobbyist who once worked for Tom DeLay, sent to his Indian tribal clients. It was released by the Senate Indian affairs committee when it was investigating disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff:

Our mission is to get specifically selected groups of individuals to the polls to speak out AGAINST something. To that end, your money is best spent finding them and communicating with them on using the modes that they are most likely to respond to. Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information form [sic] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone trees.

The wackos are now in the spotlight. But the sane wing of American politics does indeed seem to be letting the ratification of the Law of the Sea slip past them, even though it presents a unique opportunity to break the conservative hold on multilateralism. If the Senate cannot ratify this treaty when the White House, the Pentagon and former Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee are onside with a Democratic majority, then Americans had best resign themselves to being all at sea in a world of international anarchy.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.