COPENHAGEN - As Russia and certain other countries appear keen to explore natural resources in the seabed of the Arctic north, proponents of sustainable development are urging the United States to join global efforts to promote the responsible use of marine life and resources.
"As a non-member of the Law of the Sea Treaty, the United States is missing out on a huge economic opportunity, not to mention substantial security and environmental benefits," said Scott Paul of Citizens for Global Solutions, an independent think tank in Washington, DC.
The Law of the Sea Treaty, which was conceived by the United Nations some 25 years ago, sets universal standards for virtually all human uses of the high seas, including the delineation of territorial waters, navigation rights, research, environmental protection, fisheries, and mining of the seabed.
Since 1994 when it came into effect, the treaty has been ratified by more than 150 nations. Only a handful of countries, including the United States, remain outside the fold of the treaty, also known as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In 1982, the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan refused to sign the treaty because one of its provisions considered the deep seabed as part of the "common heritage of mankind" and empowered a global body to oversee the mining regime.
In addition, the United States objected to the treaty because the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is based in Jamaica, could require companies involved in deep-sea mining to share their technology with developing countries. U.S. officials also feared the ISA would not let the United States enjoy enough powers to defend its perceived interests.
At the time, many in the Reagan administration labeled the treaty as socialistic, and said it threatened U.S. sovereignty and private enterprise.
But in recent months, calls, including from the White House, have been on the rise in support of ratifying the treaty, although some lawmakers continue to voice opposition.
After keeping mum for more than six years, in May, in a written statement, President George W. Bush urged the Senate to endorse the treaty.
"Joining the 25-year-old treaty will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed services, [and] secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain," he said.
Currently, the administration is working closely with Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his Republican counterpart Richard Lugar, to take up the treaty issue.
In a recent statement, Lugar, who is a staunch supporter of the treaty, described the United States' behavior as that of "a free rider."
"At a time when the United States is being criticized by friends and foes alike as either a Lone Ranger or worse, an arrogant bully, we can demonstrate that we believe international cooperation, done right, can serve America's interests," he said.
Lugar believes that by embracing the treaty the United States would not only strengthen its national security, but could also help "counter the prejudices that America is an unreliable partner or a threat to world order."
The Center's Paul, who is otherwise strongly critical of many Bush administration policies, welcomed the statements from the White House.
"Senators who oppose this treaty are out of touch. The president, the military, environmental groups, and all major ocean industries support the treaty," he said. "The small minority who may vote against the Law of the Sea offer no alternative and are out of the mainstream."
Many of those in support of the treaty seem alarmed by the recent Russian move to plant a flag on the seabed beneath the Arctic Ocean. Many believe it was a signal from Moscow, which has ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, that it has the right to exploit the oil- and gas-rich Lomonosov Ridge in the region.
The Arctic is becoming more accessible as global warming thaws the ice on the surface. It is believed that the Arctic seabed has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.
Other nations, including the United States, could enjoy rights in the Arctic, but only states parties to the Law of the Sea Treaty would have the standing to make such claims -- or challenge the claims of others, experts say.
To some, Russia's move is a wake-up call for the United States as well as other nations that border the Arctic Circle, such as Canada, Norway, and Denmark.
"The Senate should ratify the treaty immediately, as President Bush has requested," said Paul. "No one nation controls the world's vast oceans. Only through a comprehensive set of rules can all nations profit fairly and sustainably from the ocean's resources and maintain their rights to navigate safely and freely."
"We shouldn't be left out in the Arctic Cold," he added.
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