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Senate panel approves ’Law of the Sea’ treaty

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The Reagan-era ‘‘Law of the Sea’’ treaty was primed for its first-ever Senate vote, boosted by strong support from the Bush administration and an emphatic vote of approval Wednesday by the Foreign Relations Committee.
    With Senate ratification, the United States would join 155 nations that are party to a convention that sets rules and settles disputes over navigation, fishing and economic development of the open seas and establishes environmental standards.
    Treaty supporters, after making little headway for years, have gained momentum recently with concerns that the melting of the global ice cap will trigger a rush of claims by Arctic countries, including Russia, to previously iced-in resources.
    Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., said the international pact, first proposed by Richard Nixon in 1970, offered the United States a simple choice. ‘‘Do we join a treaty that establishes a framework to advance the rule of law ... or do we remain on the outside, to the detriment of our national interests.’’
    ‘‘If we fail to ratify this treaty, we are allowing decisions that will affect our Navy, our ship operators, our offshore industries and other maritime interests to be made without U.S. representation,’’ said Sen. Dick Lugar, the panel’s top Republican. ‘‘We will also be forced to rely on other nations to oppose excessive claims to Arctic territory by Russia and perhaps others.’’
    The committee vote was 17-4.
    The White House has urged the Senate to approve the treaty, and senior Pentagon officials have endorsed it, saying it would give legal clarity to U.S. naval operations. The oil and gas industry says failure to ratify could put it at a disadvantage in sovereignty disputes over Arctic continental shelf areas that may hold one quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas.
    Navy commanders on Wednesday pointed to recent piracy incidents off the Somalia coast as illustrations of how the treaty would provide the U.S. Navy and its sailors with better protections.
    Ratifying the treaty, said Vice Admiral John G. Morgan Jr., deputy chief of naval operations, would ‘‘give us treaty-based rights to restore order in the maritime realm.’’ The Navy assisted the crew of a North Korean cargo ship after they clashed with Somali pirates this week.
    But the convention still faces stiff opposition from Senate Republicans who contend it would subject U.S. military and economic interests to a hostile international bureaucracy.
    ‘‘I am absolutely convinced it undermines U.S. sovereignty,’’ Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told a recent news conference of GOP opponents. ‘‘This treaty will not be adopted,’’ said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. ‘‘There aren’t the votes to pass it.’’ Treaties must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
    The Law of the Sea Convention was concluded in 1982 and went into force in 1994. President Reagan opposed U.S. participation because of one provision dealing with deep seabed mining. That provision was amended in 1994 to satisfy U.S. concerns and signed by President Clinton, but the Senate ignored it.
    Three years ago, the Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously in favor of the treaty but the full Senate, then in Republican hands, did not take it up.
    The treaty recognizes sovereign rights over a country’s continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles and beyond if the country can provide evidence to substantiate its claims. It gives Arctic countries 10 years after they ratify the treaty to prove their claims under the polar ice cap. The United States, with its Alaskan coast, is the only Arctic nation not party to the treaty.

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