TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

TFF Home | About us


Iraq Forum

Features by others

Links to all issues

New stuff

Other associate articles

Burundi Forum

Publications on-line

Paul McCartney

Nyt på nordisk

Jonathan Power

EU conflict-handling

The 100 best books

Annual Reports

TFF Associates


Reconciliation project

Øbergs Kalejdoskop

Support TFF on-line

Activities right now

Gandhi & India

Teaching & training

Oberg's photos

Support TFF off-line

PressInfos - Analyses

Macedonia Forum

Lærestof på dansk

TFF News Navigator


Both Bush and Kerry want to ratify
the Law of the Sea Treaty this month



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

November 3, 2004

LONDON - This week as the world watched with baited breath the American presidential election the last thing that most people were thinking about was sea and oceans. Yet both George W. Bush and John Kerry were unanimous on one important point of foreign policy - although neither spoke a word about it. They agreed, if elected, that they would move to ratify the UN's Law of the Sea. It could happen before the month is out.

All the road blocks of the last twenty years since President Reagan decided to torpedo the treaty have been removed and Congress is poised to give the White House the green light on ratification. It will be a momentous step forward for international law, one which defeated a willing Bill Clinton and is out of character for the unilateralist-inclined George W. Bush. But the consensus in Washington is now very real.

Until the Law of the Sea was drafted the seas and oceans around us, two thirds of our planet, were largely lawless. When 350 years ago the Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, formulated the doctrine of the freedom of the seas, laissez faire seemed a magnificent idea. "Let no man possess what belongs to every man."

But this is the age of giant tankers, oil spills that destroy whole coasts, declining fish catches, disputes over rights of passage and maybe the beginnings of a gold rush for minerals and genetic resources on the bottom of the sea.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?
Get more quality articles in the future

After 26 years of negotiation in which America played an active part the Law of the Sea came into force ten years ago this month. It was an historical milestone in the annals of nation state competition and commercial exploration. It gave the world a chance to arrange for mankind a fair distribution of its common patrimony of the seas. It has the chance of establishing precedents that could be applied to other endeavors like the slicing up of oil-rich Antarctica and Artic Ocean, currently being disputed by nations as diverse as Denmark and Russia, the future frontiers of the moon, the planets and outer space. This is why some say it is, in its own way, a Magna Carta for the 21st century.

It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who first coined the term to describe the seas as "the common heritage of mankind". Nixon's attitude was anomalous: the U.S. attitude to international law had long been ambiguous and uncertain.

President Harry Truman was the first to challenge the conventional wisdom then reigning as laid down by Grotius. In 1945 he proclaimed U.S. jurisdiction over the seabed resources of the continental shelf. Three years later, Chile Peru and Ecuador raised the stakes by claiming 20-mile maritime zones and seizing American tuna boats fishing in their waters. The fear was that nations might go further and declare exclusive 200-mile territorial waters.

It was in an attempt to find some accommodation among these new coastal jurisdictions and traditional high seas freedom that the Law of the Sea conference was convened. The result was one of the great negotiating texts of all time- far more comprehensive, detailed and demanding of shared sovereignty than that for the International Criminal Court. It weighs the interests of continental nations like the U.S. and Russia, islands like the Philippines and Jamaica and landlocked states such as Austria and Chad.

The treaty rolls back existing claims of territorial jurisdiction wider than 12 miles. It writes into international law the right to free and unimpeded passage through the 100 straits that are narrower than 24 miles. (This has brought the Pentagon down firmly on the side of the treaty after a series of disputes including one with good neighbor, Canada, over the North West Passage, now steadily becoming ice-free.) And the treaty while recognizing exclusive 200-mile economic zones for coastal states would not allow them to restrict the passage of ships or the over flight of planes of other nations.

Once the U.S. ratifies the treaty the pressure will be on the few other dissenting states to ratify. China, despite its nervousness about recognizing a treaty that would give the U.S. navy the undisputed right to patrol the Taiwan Strait, has long ago ratified it. More the pity that the Law of the Sea does not address territorial disputes that were underway before it was negotiated - like who controls the Spratly Islands that pits China against Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Future amendments of the treaty could deal with that. But America needs to ratify the treaty this month- the ten-year deadline is up- if it is to be eligible to vote on amendments.


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:



Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"




Här kan du läsa om - och köpa - Jonathan Powers bok på svenska

"Som Droppen Urholkar Stenen"



Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name






S P E C I A L S & F O R U M S

Iraq Forum

Gandhi & India

Burundi Forum

Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

EU conflict-management

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Basic menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2004