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Conservative Opposition Leaves U.N. Accord in Dry Dock

The Eagle Forum and others are against such multinational treaties. Their all-out effort has stalled its ratification in the Senate this year.

June 01, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Defense and State departments both want it. So do the oil and mining industries. Environmental groups are clamoring for it.

Yet three months after the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea won the unanimous approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is languishing in the Senate, with scant chance of ratification this year.

The comprehensive accord, covering the use of the oceans for shipping, mining, fishing and naval operations, has become the victim of an all-out assault by conservative groups, such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, that oppose multinational agreements on principle.

The treaty's chief Senate advocate, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), has warned the Bush administration that its failure to speed ratification tells the world that the United States rejects multilateralism even as it tries to rally support for Iraq's recovery and for the war against terrorism.

"If we cannot get beyond political paralysis in a case where the coalition of American supporters is so comprehensive, there is little reason to think that any multilateral solution to any international problem is likely to be accepted within the U.S. policymaking structure," Lugar said in a speech last month.

When Lugar appealed to President Bush recently to save the treaty, the president merely nodded, according to Mark Helmke, an aide to Lugar. He said national security advisor Condoleezza Rice gave Lugar a noncommittal "we'll take it under advisement." The administration, Helmke said, is "letting a bunch of right-wing isolationist groups use the United Nations as a way to beat up on the treaty."

Although the conservative groups' objections were expected, he said, "what did surprise us is that the administration kowtowed to them so quickly."

Another congressional aide who watched the treaty bog down said the White House "didn't want to start a big civil war inside the Republican ranks" in an election year. The aide, who opposes the treaty, spoke on the condition that he not be named.

In February of last year, the Bush administration put the treaty on a short list of international accords it wanted the Senate to ratify.

The 1982 treaty has been ratified by 145 nations, including all other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The U.S., which played a major role in drafting the treaty, finally signed it in 1994 -- after renegotiating the part of the accord that deals with mining in the ocean floor beyond national jurisdictions.

The accord did not have a chance while then-Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who objected to most multilateral treaties, was the leading Republican on the committee. But when Helms retired in 2003 and Lugar became the panel's top Republican, prospects brightened for the U.N. sea treaty and several other long-delayed international accords.

In February, the Foreign Relations Committee approved the Law of the Sea, 19 to 0.

Conservative groups responded by asking hundreds of thousands of conservative activists to tell their senators to block the treaty. Former Helms staffers working for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) helped keep the treaty from facing a vote, Helmke said.

The leaders of the groups take credit for stalling the treaty.

"This treaty was on a fast track," said Tom DeWeese, president of the American Policy Center a conservative advocacy group. "Suddenly, we raised a ruckus on this and began to get members of the Senate to question it."

Conservative groups oppose international arbitration bodies created by the treaty to help resolve disputes over freedom of navigation for naval and shipping vessels. They object to extending national zones of sovereignty farther into the ocean.

They also disapprove of provisions regulating deep seabed mining. The treaty would create an international agency to collect royalties from mining companies and distribute the funds to underdeveloped countries.

"The basic purpose of the treaty is to make the U.S. spend our money to mine the riches of the sea and turn it over to some U.N. authority," said Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, which advocates for conservative social issues. "All these U.N. treaties are invasions of our sovereignty."

However, the Republican political appointee who under Presidents Nixon and Ford helped draft the treaty dismisses the criticisms as "vacuous."

"There is not a single sovereign right of the United States that is conceded in this treaty," said John Norton Moore, a law professor at the University of Virginia. "This is about as clear a case of a treaty strongly in the interest of the United States as I've ever seen.

"I'm a conservative and I'm a Republican. I find it shocking that what we're getting is an effort to undercut the wishes of a Republican president, our security establishment and American industry. In an age in which we need to cooperate with countries around the world on terrorism, this is extremely harmful."

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