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James A. Winnefeld, DOD: Time for U.S. to Join Law of Sea Convention

June 14, 2012

Accession to the longstanding United Nations Law of the Sea Convention will have a positive impact on U.S. operations across the maritime domain, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. called himself a career sailor and former combatant commander who has come to his own judgment on the value for the United States of the treaty’s legal framework governing uses of the oceans.

Winnefeld appeared before the panel with five of the nation’s top military officers.

It is “a privilege to appear alongside another generation of military leaders,” he said, “as we join in sharing the view that now is the time for the United States to join the Law of the Sea Convention.”

The treaty opened for signature in December 1982 and became effective in November 1994, after 60 countries had signed. Today, 162 parties -- including most close U.S. allies -- have ratified the Law of the Sea Convention.

“The convention improves on previous agreements, including the 1958 Geneva Convention,” Winnefeld said.

The treaty will protect U.S. access to the maritime domain, fortify U.S. credibility as the world's leading naval power, the admiral added, and will allow the United States to bring to bear the full force of its influence on maritime disputes.

“In short,” he said, “it preserves what we have and it gives us yet another tool to engage any nation that would threaten our maritime interests.”

But not everyone agrees that the treaty will benefit the United States, Winnefeld acknowledged, adding that defense officials take these concerns seriously.

“Some say that joining the convention would result in a loss of sovereignty for the United States. I believe just the opposite to be true,” the admiral said. “Some would say … that joining the convention will open U.S. Navy operations to the jurisdiction of international courts. We know this is not true.”

In 2007, the Senate proposed what it called “declarations and understandings” to the treaty that specifically express the right to exempt military activities from the convention, Winnefeld said. “Many other nations that have acceded [or ratified the treaty] have already exempted their military activities from the treaty without dispute,” he noted.

Some believe the convention would require the United States to surrender its sovereignty over warships and other military vessels, the admiral said.

“I can assure you that we will not let this happen and the convention does not require it,” he told the Senate panel. “If anything, it further protects our sovereignty in this regard well before we would have to resort to any use of force.”

Winnefeld added that joining the convention will protect the United States from “ongoing and persistent efforts on the part of a number of nations, including those with growing economic and military power, to advance their national laws and set precedents that could restrict our maritime activities, particularly within the bounds of their exclusive economic zones.”

The term “lawfare” describes such efforts to erode the protections of customary international law, he said.

“It's a trend that's real and pressing and that could place your Navy at legal disadvantage unless we join the convention,” the admiral said. “And the nations that would challenge us in this and other ways are, frankly, delighted that we are not a party to the convention.”

Winnefeld told the senators that along with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he finds it awkward to suggest that other nations should follow rules to which the United States has not yet agreed. Ratifying the treaty will give the United States the ability to influence key decisions that could affect the nation’s sovereign rights and those of its partners and friends in the Arctic and elsewhere, he said. “This grows more important each day,” he added.

The real question, Winnefeld said, is whether the United States will choose to lead in the maritime environment from the inside or follow from the outside.

U.S. military leaders over two decades have studied the problem closely and arrived at the same conclusion, Winnefeld said: “that ratification is in our best interests.”

“I join these officers, including every chairman of the Joint Chiefs since 1994, in giving my support to the Law of the Sea Convention and in asking for your advice and consent,” he said.

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