April 04, 2012

Law of the Sea Ratification Central to Securing U.S. Maritime Interests

Debate over ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is ramping up in Washington. There has been a lot of attention given to how the treaty can help the United States secure its interests in places like the Arctic and the South China Sea – and rightly so given that challenges to U.S. maritime interests in these regions have serious implications for American security and its global leadership role. Yet other regions also exemplify the central role that UNCLOS ratification will play in securing U.S. interests at sea, including just off the U.S. coast.

As the U.S. Gulf Coast continues to reel from the devastating months-long oil spill that plagued the region in 2010, the United States is likely to be hamstrung in managing future disasters unless it ratifies UNCLOS. Offshore oil drilling in non-U.S. waters is a particular worry for U.S. officials – including the Coast Guard. Recent activities along Cuba’s continental shelf have exacerbated concerns that an oil spill akin to the Deepwater Horizon incident could impact an area of the U.S. coastline that stretches from eastern Florida to North Carolina’s outer banks. Reports suggest that Cuba’s capacity to respond to a major oil spill is minuscule, with only five percent of the assets needed to respond to an accident. Given that Washington does not maintain official diplomatic ties with Havana, it is unclear how the United States and Cuba would cooperate around an oil spill that could have economic and environmental implications for U.S. coastal communities.

Ratifying UNCLOS would give the United States additional tools to manage these challenges that are quickly manifesting off the U.S. coast. For one, the hurdles that the United States may encounter in making overtures to Cuba in the wake of an oil spill off its coast may be blunted, as UNCLOS provides a basic framework for states – even states with very few or no diplomatic ties – to cooperate around shared environmental concerns. At the very least, ratifying UNCLOS would potentially give the United States added legitimacy in conducting oil spill responses in Cuba’s 200-natutical mile EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone, even without a request for assistance from the Cuban government. Such flexibility would be critical for preventing a Cuban offshore accident from contaminating U.S. waters and coastal communities.

As U.S. policymakers debate the merits of ratifying UNCLOS, it is important to recognize the ways in which UNCLOS ratification will help secure U.S. maritime interests, including those not too far off the U.S. coast.