by Ben Bovarnick and Michael Conathan
While heads were spinning over last week’s decision by a conservative justice to uphold President Obama’s health care law, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was practicing its own version of Opposite Day.
The panel convened its fourth hearing to explore the case for ratifying the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea. Interestingly, witnesses who are traditionally supported by conservatives found themselves at opposition with Senate Republicans — all while getting love from the panel’s Democrats.
The Law of the Sea treaty establishes the rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to use and protection of the world’s oceans. It creates standards for fishing, mining, and pollution control. One hundred and sixty-two other countries have ratified it, and the United States remains the only industrialized nation that has not joined the international community.
Executives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and Verizon Communications Inc. testified that ratifying the Law of the Sea would support the international rights of American companies, and would allow them to expand offshore enterprise and economic activity.
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) noted that he was having “an out of body experience” watching API CEO Jack Gerard defend a treaty backed by the Obama Administration. Mr. Gerard responded: “The irony wasn’t lost on me either, [but] what we’re talking about here is the future of the country and where we’ll stand in a global economy.”
While API seems to be most concerned with ensuring access to oil and gas resources, another major economic motivation for ratification is access to rare earth minerals — critical components of advanced technology from cell phones to missile guidance systems — which exist in large quantities on the deep seabed in international waters. These deposits could offset the virtual monopoly China currently holds over global REM production; according to the Congressional Research Service, in 2010 China produced more than 97 percent of the world’s rare earth metals and is the source of 91 percent of our domestic supply.
American mining and manufacturing companies, such as Lockheed Martin, want access to these resources directly, but cannot because, as NAM CEO Jay Timmons noted, “they will only do so if there is a structure in place that contains internationally recognized agreements” that assure the validity of U.S. claims. “Ratification,” he added, “would give the companies the certainty they need to develop these resources.”
Oddly, a treaty that would help us both protect and more efficiently utilize our ocean resources — supported by businesses and the environmental community alike — is being held up by a small group of conservatives paranoid about the United Nations. As we’ve written before:
This brings us to the keystone in the arch of opposition. The treaty is officially titled the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And anything that bears the imprimatur of the United Nations is immediately and unconditionally dead on arrival in a certain tranche of senatorial offices. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), for example, has suggested the United Nations is “ineffective, they’ve been wasteful, there’s corruption, and there is deep concern that there is a lot of anti-American sentiment.”
Here’s the thing: The United Nations has virtually no role in management, implementation, or execution of this treaty. It remains in the convention’s title only because the treaty was initially negotiated at the United Nations.
The treaty itself does not establish U.N. oversight of any aspect of its implementation. It creates separate management bodies, like the International Seabed Authority, which work to regulate multinational operations in international waters without a direct link to the organization that has attracted so much vitriol from the protectionist wing of the conservative movement.
Apparently, conservative conspiracy theorists’ fears about the United Nations’s purported push for creation of a world government are stronger than their ties to Big Oil, corporate America, and military contractors. As Secretary Clinton put it, “Whatever arguments may have existed for delaying U.S. accession no longer exist and truly cannot even be taken with a straight face.”
The lack of support for this treaty among some GOP lawmakers is stunning. It shows once again that conservatives’ ideological opposition to the United Nations is getting in the way of smart planning for our natural resources.
Ben Bovarnick is an Energy Intern and Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.