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The Law of the Sea Convention “is absolutely essential, not only to our economic interests, our diplomatic interests” but to “our national security interests as well.”

That observation was issued by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta at a hearing on May 23 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Since coming into force in 1994, the Law of the Sea Treaty has been ratified by 161 nations. The United States is not one of them. The MTD repeatedly has called for its passage. 

But as Panetta noted, “We’re the only industrial power that has failed to do that.  And as a result, we don’t have a seat at the table.”

Joining Panetta in support of the treaty were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Army General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

”We believe that it is imperative to act now,” Clinton said. “No country is better served by this convention than the United States. As the world’s foremost maritime power, we benefit from the convention’s favorable freedom of navigation provisions. As the country with the world’s second-longest coastline, we benefit from its provisions on offshore natural resources.”

The continuing failure of the U.S. government to approve the treaty is having real effects which are only getting worse, added Panetta. The U.S. is not represented and U.S. claims are not defended. He noted that meant America is unable to influence nations who are at the table.

The bottom line?  According to Panetta, ratifying the treaty “would ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others. It would give us the power and authority to support and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes within a rules-based order.”

Putting the issue into a larger context, Panetta said, “We at the Defense Department have gone through an effort to develop a defense strategy for the future, a defense strategy not only for now, but into the future as well. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the very treaty that codifies those rules?”

Dempsey made that same point. He told the committee that the treaty codifies the navigational rights and freedoms necessary to project and sustain U.S. military forces. These include the right of transit through international straits, the right to exercise high seas freedoms in foreign exclusive economic zones, and the right of innocent passage through foreign territorial seas.

“And, it reinforces the sovereign immunity of our warships as they conduct operations,” he added.