It’s been thirty years since the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), a treaty establishing international rules for the collective governance of the world’s oceans, was first signed by the assembled nations of the UN in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Since that time its ratification by Congress has been debated every few years with new fervor, vainly.
As Mark Landler of the New York Times recently reported, UNCLOS is back on the docket in Congress, as Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, among others, to testify before the Senate in the first of what will be many hearings on the importance of US ratification of UNCLOS.
Though there have always been strong arguments in favor of ratification, now has never been a better time to truly consider joining our country with the nearly 200 states that have ratified this treaty (161 states plus the EU to be precise). Here are three reasons we should ratify UNCLOS right now:
1. The Arctic is Opening
Anthropogenic climate change is driving measurable loss of sea ice and warming of surface waters across the Arctic Ocean, meaning the Arctic is now more accessible to ocean vessels and deep-sea exploration than it has ever been before.
UNCLOS can provide the framework for the five Arctic states identified in the treaty – the US, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia – to collectively manage the ocean in this newly exploitable and fragile realm. This, importantly, is one of the nine priority objectives of our new National Ocean Policy, a hallmark environmental initiative of the Obama Administration.
Perhaps more saliently for those concerned with America’s domestic economic interests, UNCLOS also includes a process for Arctic states to claim mineral and oil extraction rights in the Arctic seabed (under the jurisdiction of the International Seabed Authority) in areas beyond their existing national claims. Until the US ratifies UNCLOS it will not have access to these provisions and it will be unable to have its rights to these new resources recognized by the international community.
2. Ecosystem Tipping Points Are Being Reached
According to a new study published in this month’s issue of Nature, the possibility of a large, planet-scale ecosystem shift (wherein the natural world as we know it alters quickly and irrevocably) is theoretically possible and increasingly likely.
In explaining this increasing likelihood of “shift,” the authors point to a range of human-led drivers of global ecosystem instability that are, cumulatively, moving our planet towards a “tipping point.” Such drivers include the conversion of large portions of the planet towards agricultural production and urban development, the generation of new hypoxic dead zones across the world’s oceans (which is directly related to the first driver), and the mass release of climate forcing greenhouse gases.
The result? The authors report that, “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”
Aside from calling for increased bio-monitoring and forecasting to better anticipate this shift, the authors call for improved management of our planet’s ecosystems and it’s biological communities, particularly the world’s oceans.
Once again, UNCLOS provides a framework for this task: the convention establishes obligations for protection of the marine environment by signatory states and offers a system for resolving conflicts around marine resources (under the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea).
Until the US ratifies UNCLOS it will not be an active participant in global discussion about ocean management. Particularly in high seas regions, where management must be collectively overseen by multiple nations, this means we are abdicating our responsibility for solving problems we’ve helped create.
3. Rio + 20 Will Need Help
This week marks the beginning of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio De Janero, Brazil, which itself marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Earth Summit that was held in Rio in 1992 (hence Rio+20).
This conference of world leaders, scientists, and members of civil society and the private sector represents the best-concerted effort by the global community to lay the groundwork for the economic and social advancement of the developing world in a manner that can reduce humanity’s cumulative impacts on the environment. Plans for improved management and protection of the oceans are one of the main achievements hoped-for in a successful Rio outcome.
But unfortunately, early reports from the conference are not good: the pace of agreement on the issues is slow, and many attendees are voicing skepticism that binding commitments are achievable.
It will be many months before the US ratifies UNCLOS, if indeed it ever does. But signing this historic treaty after a successful Rio conference will signal to the world America’s readiness to become a leader in the global effort to repair and safely manage our environment. This in turn will give more momentum to the hard work of actualizing the agreements of Rio+20, turning whatever new principles we’ve created into goals, turning those goals into plans, and turning those plans into actions. It will be a long, complicated, and expensive process. And, for America, ratifying UNCLOS must be one of the first steps.
Aaron Reuben is a research assistant at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where he studies the policy impacts of environmental health indicators. He holds a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Yale environmental journal, SAGE Magazine.