Hirono Pushes for Ratification of International Maritime Treaty

Aug 8, 2019

Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono is leading an effort to ratify a 40 year old U.N. treaty establishing international rules for global maritime activity. The U.S. signed the pact in 1994, but Congress never gave approval.

Some of the world’s largest bodies of water are at the center of international disputes. From the Arctic Ocean to the South China Sea, countries are arguing about borders, influence and resources.

Much of the debate takes place under a 40-year old international treaty, one that doesn’t even involve the United States. 

The name is a mouthful: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. It covers everything from freedom of navigation to fishing and mining rights.

In red, China's so-called 9-Dash Line denotes its asserted territorial claims. In blue, the Exclusive Economic Zones afforded each signatory of the UNCLOS treaty.
Credit United Nations

The U.S. did sign the treaty in 1994, but as any scholar of the U.S. Constitution knows,  two-thirds of the U.S. Senate must also ratify international treaties for them to take effect.

That never happened with UNCLOS.

Several attempts have been made over the years. The most recent case was in 2012, when the effort failed by a single vote.

Democrat Mazie Hirono is now pushing for the Senate to once again hold a vote and ratify the treaty. She has bipartisan support from Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski.

Hirono’s effort appears inspired by the Chinese island building project in the South China Sea. Using sand dredging, China has constructed sprawling military bases on what were once submerged coral atolls of disputed ownership.

In 2013, the Philippines sued China under UNCLOS, alleging China was infringing upon its exclusive economic zone as outlined in the treaty. Both parties are UNCLOS signatories.

The U.S. couldn’t even get a permission to observe the proceedings. Hirono says being on the outside looking in accomplishes nothing.

“Since we are not party of the treaty, it makes it very difficult for us to weight in. And when the United States weighs in, I think it makes a difference in terms of enforcement of the decisions.”

The UNCLOS arbitration sided with the Philippines in 2016. China refused to even attend the proceedings and has never recognized the verdict. 

Retired Navy Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, who now runs the Honolulu-based foreign policy think tank Pacific Forum, says that as a non-member state, the U.S. doesn't have much in the way of moral authority to enforce UNCLOS decisions.

“The fact that we have not ratified it tends to diminish the impact of all of the support, and weight, and authority that the treaty has represented. We’re seeing this on the news every day, whether its claims by China or Russia or others who are pushing back on the widely accepted norms of the international order,” Girrier said.

He further points out that ratification of the UNCLOS treaty has historically been supported by military brass in the maritime services.

If history is any indication, Hirono’s effort faces an uphill battle. Even if she can muster the 67 votes needed to pass the resolution, she would first need approval from the Senate’s notoriously immutable Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“We’ll do our best,” she said with a chuckle.

Listen to the full interviews with Senator Mazie Hirono and Rear Admiral (Retired) Robert Girrier:

Correction: The original version of this story indetified Mitch McConnell as the Presdient of the Senate. He is the Senate Majority Leader, the body's de facto highest ranking member. Under the U.S. Constitution, Vice President Mike Pence is the Senate President.