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
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
“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
But not everyone agrees that the treaty will benefit the United States,
Winnefeld acknowledged, adding that defense officials take these
“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
Some believe the convention would require the United States to surrender
its sovereignty over warships and other military vessels, the admiral
“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
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.”
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.