Terrorism Threat at Sea Should Not Be Ignored, Tuerk, Moore Warn

November 2, 2007

Just as the Sept. 11 attacks brought the issue of terrorism to the forefront internationally, they also raised the specter of the potential for terrorist acts committed at sea. Terrorists hiding nuclear weapons in shipping containers or hijacking an oil tanker could lead to devastating results. But despite the enormous importance of maritime vessels to the world economy and security, the international community has not yet adjusted international laws to address these concerns, according to Judge Helmut Tuerk who recently visited the University of Virginia School of Law.

TuerkRecent proposed changes to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea try to better define what constitutes a terrorist act at sea and how the international community would respond to such an event, said Tuerk, a former Austrian diplomat and current member of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. However, none of the more than 150 countries that have joined the Law of the Sea Convention have yet ratified these amendments addressing terrorism.

"These legal and practical measures can only prove their true value in the face of an attack, but no one can harbor a wish that we'll have to face that test," Helmut said. "So the international community can only try and hope that these amended versions of the convention will enter into force very soon."

Tuerk spoke at "The Law of the Sea Tribunal and U.S. Foreign Policy," an event sponsored by the J.B. Moore Society of International Law. In addition to Tuerk, Virginia Law Professor John Moore, the director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy and an international law scholar, spoke about the pressing need for the United States to finally join the Law of the Sea Convention.

Completed in 1982, the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention establishes territorial boundaries, spells out business guidelines and defines nations' rights and responsibilities in their use of ocean waters. The Convention greatly expanded U.S. control over huge swaths of the oceans bordering American coastal areas, Moore said. This expansion gives the U.S. rights over natural resources in those areas, including fish, oil and natural gas. However, the U.S. still has not yet signed on to the Convention, and a small but vocal group of opponents has been rallying to discourage the U.S. Senate from ratifying the agreement. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Oct. 31 to ratify the Convention.

Moore disputed claims by the likes of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly that joining the Law of the Sea Convention would hurt American interests by eroding U.S. sovereignty. Moore said that expanding American territorial jurisdiction in the oceans would better protect American ships and other maritime interests.

"How can you possibly have a setting where you're expanding the United States' resource jurisdiction [by an area] greater than the area of the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Alaska combined [and] make a straight-faced argument that you're losing the sovereignty of America?" Moore asked.

A diverse number of organizations and interests have been calling for American ratification of the Convention, including environmental and business groups, and the Department of Homeland Security, Moore said.

"How many things do you know in which the oil and gas companies and the environmental groups are all on the same side in supporting something?" asked Moore, who has been briefing U.S. senators on the Convention.

Tuerk and Moore agreed the U.S. not ratifying the Convention could harm American interest. Lack of membership undermines the U.S.'s negotiating power around the world and means that American maritime interests are not represented when world powers make decisions affecting the oceans, Moore said.

"This struggle for oceans issues has gone on for hundreds of years, [and] it will continue," Moore said. "But if we're not a party, we lose the ability to provide oceans leadership. We're relegated now to a much different position."

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