The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), an omnibus treaty originally blocked by President Ronald Reagan,
is back, supported by internationalist activists and profit-minded
businessmen. The convention, originally intended to promote large-scale
income redistribution to Third World states, creates an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to regulate ocean mining and the enterprise to mine for the ISA.
Treaty proponents prefer to emphasize the LOST’s provisions covering
navigation and the environment. They dismiss the mining provisions as
having been "fixed" by the Clinton administration.
But the Senate should look carefully before it ratifies LOST.
There are benefits, but they have been exaggerated. And the seabed regulatory system remains deeply flawed.
For instance, the Treaty still may require the transfer of
proprietary technology.The revised LOST deletes only one section of the
original mandatory technology transfer provision. The other remains,
directing the Authority to "promote and encourage the transfer to
developing States of such technology and scientific knowledge."
Moreover, the Authority and member countries "shall initiate and
promote" programs "for the transfer of technology to the Enterprise and
to developing states," including "facilitating the access of the
Enterprise and of developing States to the relevant technology."
The revised text also adds new language. For instance, "If the
Enterprise or developing States are unable to obtain deep seabed mining
technology, the Authority may request all or any of the contractors and
their respective sponsoring State or States to cooperate with it in
facilitating the acquisition of deep seabed mining technology."
Even the clause guaranteeing "protection of intellectual property
rights" is of little value, since governments routinely use compulsory
licensing to override foreign patents (just ask the pharmaceutical
Moreover, some treaty proponents point to expansive litigation
possibilities. For instance, William C.G. Burns, a professor at
Monterey Institute of International Studies, contends that LOST "may
prove to be one of the primary battlegrounds for climate change issues
in the future."
He cites the Treaty’s expansive definition of marine pollution,
writing that "the potential impacts of rising sea surface temperatures,
rising sea levels, and changes in ocean pH as a consequence of rising
levels of carbon dioxide in sea water" all could "give rise to actions
under the Convention’s marine pollution provisions." He figures "the
specter of litigation" might affect U.S. policy.
Moreover, Annex III, Article 21(2) states that LOST tribunal decisions
"shall be enforceable in the territory of each State Party." Treaty
advocates say don’t mind the text, LOST obligations won’t be
enforceable in U.S. courts. But in the recently decided Medellin v.
Texas, Justice John Paul Stevens contrasted the Vienna Convention –
which the Court determined was not self-enforcing – with LOST, which he
opined did "incorporate international judgments into international
No wonder LOST supporters discourage full disclosure. Bernard Oxman
of the University of Miami acknowledged that the text "is amply endowed
with indeterminate principles, mind-numbing cross-references,
institutional redundancies, exasperating opacity and inelegant
drafting." Thus, he advocated "restraint in speculating on the meaning
of the convention or on possible differences between the Convention and
After all, he wrote, "it is essential to measure what we say in
terms of its effect on the goal. Experienced international lawyers know
where many of the sensitive nerve endings of governments are. Where
possible, they should try to avoid irritating them."
One "sensitive nerve ending" is LOST’s authority over land-based
pollution. Article 207 of the Treaty mandates: "States shall adopt laws
and regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine
environment from land-based sources." States also "shall take other
measures as may be necessary to prevent, reduce and control such
Treaty advocates claim that this provision is merely hortatory. Yet
Lawrence Kogan of the Institute for Trade, Standards, and Sustainable
Development warns that several provisions create a potential cause of
action and could "be used to commence litigation against the U.S." LOST
already has generated a suit by Ireland against Great Britain over
Again, LOST supporters say don’t worry, but it is not clear they are
being straight with us. The World Wildlife Fund and Don Kraus of
Citizens for Global Solutions have been telling environmentalists that
LOST could stop Russia from polluting the Arctic. How can LOST bind
Russia but not America? One advocate recently sent an e-mail – which
ended up in my hands – worrying about the consequent difficulty in
allaying "conservative fears" of LOST being "some kind of green Trojan
Trojan Horse, green or otherwise, is a good description of LOST. The
U.N. has proclaimed that LOST is not "a static instrument, but rather a
dynamic and evolving body of law that must be vigorously safeguarded
and its implementation aggressively advanced." Where might that
"dynamic and evolving body of law" end up? The U.S. Senate must answer
that question before it considers ratifying LOST.
Doug Bandow is the Bastiat Scholar in Free Enterprise at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former special assistant to
President Ronald Reagan.This article is adapted from a forthcoming
study for the Institute for Policy Innovation.