By Libby Casey
Senator Lisa Murkowski and experts in Arctic policy are pessimistic that the U-S will ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty this year, even as Norway and Russia say their countries were able to hammer out an Arctic border dispute this week thanks to the Treaty.
Alaska’s Republican Senator made her remarks today in Washington at a conference on U-S Strategies in the Arctic.
Murkowski is an advocate for ratifying the United Nations Treaty, which sets economic zones in the oceans, rights over the continental shelf, and guidelines for scientific research, environmental issues, and settling international disputes. The U-S is the only Arctic nation that has not signed on.
It’s up to the Senate to approve treaties and the last time it came close to passage, Republicans blocked it. Murkowski says there’s now a stalemate because the Obama Administration is looking for the Senate to lead, but the Senate wants stronger support from the White House first. She says the Senate calendar is partly to blame, because debate on the treaty will likely take a full week of floor time.
And considering that there are less than 45 legislative days before we depart for the August recess, and really get into the thick of the political season it is highly uncertain that such time, a full week of time will be carved out unless – unless – it becomes a priority for this Administration.
Murkowski and others say the White House is focused on the START Treaty (or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) on nuclear weapons… and wants to push that instead of Law of the Sea. Murkowski says it’s unlikely they can both be tackled at once.
Unfortunately, failure to ratify continues to keep the United States at a disadvantage internationally and outside the process, without a seat at the table. I wish I could give you more optimistic news from the Senate’s perspective, but I’m just being pragmatic about what’s going on within the Senate calendar.
Murkowski’s Legislative Assistant Arne Fuglvog says the bipartisan votes do exisst to ratify the treaty… but it’s hard to get members on the record supporting it because of a focused grass-roots Conservative effort against it.
And I agree that there’s a narrow window in 2011. You know the politics in November could be interesting. My vote count will go out the window, because we have quite a shake up, we have a number of retirees, and when I look at senators supporting ratification a number of them are leaving the Senate. We’re gonna have new republican senators coming in, not sure what their politics are or their view on the issue. Most senators I will say don’t want to go on the record on this issue.
Some conservatives say the Law of the Sea Treaty would limit American power and security efforts. Fuglvog says the treaty has support, however, from a range of scientists, industry leaders, environmentalists, and fishing groups. He says despite the lack of progress, he’s staying optimistic:
Driving a fishing boat around Bering Sea into 30 foot waves getting beat for days was good training. Because there are times as I’ve learned in the Senate where you can have the best idea in the world, and everyone supports it, and it will never see the light at the end of a tunnel and you have such an uphill climb to try to advocate for that position.
Just yesterday, Norway and Russia reached a major breakthrough agreement in what’s been a heated Arctic border dispute. It divides up the territory in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, and will regulate resource development and fishing rights.
Norway’s Deputy Minister of Defense Espen Barth Eide says that in fact the Law of the Sea Treaty allowed them to come to the table and negotiate.
We are a living demonstration that it is a country’s self-interest to sign and ratify. It gives material benefits, that you have that clear legal claim. It makes a sound basis for sound relations with your neighbors, but also gives you a legal claim that actually gives you access to larger parts of the ocean than you wold otherwise have had.
The U-S Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg says Secretary Hillary Clinton is paying close attention to what’s going on in the Arctic and that the region is crucial ground for international diplomacy.
The arctic is kind of a test case of the ability of the international community to meet the trans-national challenges of the 21st century. And how we address this, and our successes, and the mechanisms we develop, really are going to foreshadow our ability as an international community to deal with the great transnational issues of our time.
Steinberg says that includes resource development, environmental and scientific issues, and security measures.
Today’s conference at the Strategic Center for International Studies brought together a range of experts on U-S and International Arctic policy, and was supported by the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies.