Battle brewing over Law of the Sea

Reporting on the launch of the new congressional "sovereignty caucus," a group of GOP senators opposed to international law and institutions, David Weigel writes about how the confirmation battle over Harold Koh could set the stage for a confrontation over the long-debated Law of the Sea treaty and a few others: While Republicans and conservative ...

Reporting on the launch of the new congressional "sovereignty caucus," a group of GOP senators opposed to international law and institutions, David Weigel writes about how the confirmation battle over Harold Koh could set the stage for a confrontation over the long-debated Law of the Sea treaty and a few others:

While Republicans and conservative activists were disappointed by the confirmation of Koh, the long delay leading up to the vote and its relative closeness — 65 to 31 to end debate on the nomination and 62-35 to confirm him — have boosted their hopes of successfully battling treaties that they characterize as threats to American rights and national interests. Treaties need the votes of 67 senators to be ratified, and can gum up the business of the Senate for weeks if they become flash points for controversy. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has convinced Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) — a member of the House Sovereignty Caucus — to introduce a Constitutional amendment protecting the right of American parents to discipline their children and send them to religious schools.

Those hopes are likely to be tested at least twice this year. According to staffers for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the Law of the Sea Treaty — a 1982 treaty that governs the right of countries to use the oceans — could be reintroduced next month. And President Obama is in Russia this week in part to move forward the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the 1996 agreement on weapons testing that was rejected by the Senate in 1999, when the upper chamber contained 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Of the 16 treaties that the State Department included on its priority list in a May 11 letter to the committee, both sides agree that these two will be the first to face full votes. And both sides agree that the Koh vote provided a good idea of the support these treaties might command from a very skeptical Senate Republican conference.

Reporting on the launch of the new congressional "sovereignty caucus," a group of GOP senators opposed to international law and institutions, David Weigel writes about how the confirmation battle over Harold Koh could set the stage for a confrontation over the long-debated Law of the Sea treaty and a few others:

While Republicans and conservative activists were disappointed by the confirmation of Koh, the long delay leading up to the vote and its relative closeness — 65 to 31 to end debate on the nomination and 62-35 to confirm him — have boosted their hopes of successfully battling treaties that they characterize as threats to American rights and national interests. Treaties need the votes of 67 senators to be ratified, and can gum up the business of the Senate for weeks if they become flash points for controversy. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has convinced Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) — a member of the House Sovereignty Caucus — to introduce a Constitutional amendment protecting the right of American parents to discipline their children and send them to religious schools.

Those hopes are likely to be tested at least twice this year. According to staffers for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the Law of the Sea Treaty — a 1982 treaty that governs the right of countries to use the oceans — could be reintroduced next month. And President Obama is in Russia this week in part to move forward the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the 1996 agreement on weapons testing that was rejected by the Senate in 1999, when the upper chamber contained 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Of the 16 treaties that the State Department included on its priority list in a May 11 letter to the committee, both sides agree that these two will be the first to face full votes. And both sides agree that the Koh vote provided a good idea of the support these treaties might command from a very skeptical Senate Republican conference.

“The vote against Harold Koh is probably the minimum vote against both of those treaties,” said John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, and who has been a forceful critic of both treaties. “I think that a lot of Republicans, whether they agreed or disagreed with Koh’s views, basically agreed that president had the right to appoint his own team. Whether they would also support these treaties, given their concerns about national sovereignty, is another question.”

Commander James Kraska of the Naval War College made the case for Law of the Sea on FP back in February, arguing that by holding up ratification, congress is only aiding China’s efforts to unilaterally redefine international law. Law of the Sea is just one of those issues doomed by the fact that not that many people care about it, but those who, care about it a lot. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy Twitter: @joshuakeating

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