Panetta: ‘The time has come’

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, May 9 – U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday made a convincing case for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, saying “the time has come” for America to fully assert its role as a global leader by acceding to the treaty.

“It is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain,” Panetta told a reception hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Atlantic Council.

“We are the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that is not a party to it,” Panetta said, adding that “China, France, Russia, Britain, other countries, Germany, India, 161 countries – 161 countries have ratified this treaty and approved it.”

International negotiations on the treaty concluded in 1982, and it came into force 12 years later, but President Ronald Reagan opted not to submit the treaty for ratification, due to concerns about its mining provisions. The treaty was later revised, but has met with continued opposition in the Senate.


Panetta said the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that has not approved the treaty, which puts the nation at a “distinct disadvantage” especially when it comes to disputes over maritime rights and responsibilities.

“By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our actions,” he said, asking “How can we argue – how can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t officially accepted those rules ourselves?”

Panetta insisted that the country’s business community supports ratification of the treaty, especially companies involved with offshore oil, shipbuilding, commercial shipping, and communications.

“They need this treaty to do business. They need this treaty to be able to do their business and to accomplish their goals,” he said, adding “the same is true when it comes to national security.”


The United States is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war, said Panetta, citing the need to reduce the defense budget by nearly $500 billion over the next decade.

But even as the U.S. reduces its expenditures, he said it still must confront transnational threats that are beyond the ability of any single nation to resolve alone.

Panetta said that a key part of the government’s new defense strategy is to try to meet these challenges by modernizing its network of defense and security partnerships.

Washington is developing such partnerships, Panetta said, to “support a rules-based international order that promotes stability, that promotes security and that promotes safety.”

“That’s also why the United States should be exerting a leadership role in the development and interpretation of the rules that determine legal certainty on the world’s oceans,” he said.


Panetta told his audience that the U.S., a country with one of the largest coastlines and continental shelves on earth, has more to gain from the treaty than almost any other country.

By ratifying the treaty, he said, the U.S. would be in a position to negotiate in its own best interests instead of being absent from the debates over issues of national concern.

“By moving off of the sidelines where we are now and sitting at the table of nations that have ceded to this treaty, we can defend our interests,” he said. “If we’re not there, then they’ll do it and we won’t have a voice,” he warned.

“Treaty law remains the firmest legal foundation upon which to base our global presence on, above and below the seas,” Panetta said. “By joining the Convention, we would help lock in the rules that are favorable to freedom of navigation and our own global mobility.”


The defense secretary also underscored the value of the treaty for other U.S. interests, saying it would help “lock in” a massive increase in the country’s resource and economic jurisdiction, “not only to 200 nautical miles off our coast, but to a broad continental shelf beyond that zone.”

Not least, Panetta said accession would ensure the ability of the U.S. to reap the benefits of opening the Arctic, a region he described as of “increasingly important” maritime security and economic interest.

“We already see countries that are posturing for new shipping routes and natural resources as the Arctic ice cover melts and recedes,” he said, adding that the Convention is the “only means for international recognition and acceptance of our extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic.”

It now remains with 100 U.S. Senators to reach their decision to support this treaty as outlined by the Secretary of Defense. Let’s hope enough of them will see their way clear to put America on an equal footing with 161 other nations around the globe by finally endorsing this Convention of the Law of the Sea

After all, the time has come.

© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012


About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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