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Sen. Kerry on why US must sign Law of the Sea Convention, shape Arctic policy

Senator John Kerry is bringing out the top brass Thursday in his effort to get the United States to finally sign on to the Law of the Sea Convention, which many environmentalists and oil and gas industry officials agree is required for successful and safe exploration of the Arctic Circle.

At hearings scheduled before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is calling no fewer than six four-star generals and admirals who are expected to testify in support of the treaty that has already been ratified by 162 countries.

"For reasons of economic competitiveness and national security, the vast array of experts believe signing this treaty is necessary," Kerry said in an interview with GlobalPost.

"We will have this long and distinguished list of generals and admirals all with four stars who will testify to this," said Kerry, adding that having six military commanders with "a total of 24 stars," as he put it, at one hearing has "never happened before in the history of the Foreign Relations Committee."

"We are trying to educate senators who are new to the Senate and new to the treaty. We want to reintroduce this to the Senate. It is more urgent today than ever before," added Kerry.

The US signing of the treaty has been stubbornly blocked for the last three decades by a coterie of right-wing activists who insist it undermines American sovereignty by agreeing to negotiated rules on shipping, mining and environmental protections in international waters.

With a rare combination of support from environmental lobbyists as well as petroleum industry officials, the US signing on to the Law of the Sea Convention is widely seen as a necessary first step before companies will begin to invest heavily in exploiting vast reservoir of oil, gas and mineral resources that lie beneath the Arctic Circle.

"We have to establish the legal basis of our claims so that corporations are willing to invest," explained Kerry.

The treaty establishes provisions that allow each nation to effectively control its coastal waters through a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. It was written under the auspices of the United Nations in 1982, and has been in force since 1994, but the US cannot join its deliberations because it has not officially signed on to the treaty.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings are part of a series of hearings that will continue through the summer. Action on the treaty will take place after the presidential election in the fall, Kerry said.

The next set of hearings will bring together private businesses interested in the economic impact of the treaty, including petroleum, shipping and mining interests that strongly support the legal basis that the treaty will provide for shipping lanes.

"We are going to exhaust the knowledge base on this and make the best decision possible, but it will be made after the election" to minimize any partisan politics, Kerry added.

But it is already clear that President Obama strongly supports ratification of the treaty.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all pressed the case.

Clinton made the case on economic grounds, saying that a refusal to ratify the treaty hurts the United States by denying it a seat at the table when the time comes to negotiate claims to the vast oil and gas resources that are believed to lie in Arctic waters.

This wealth of resources below the Arctic Circle, and outside of each nation's exclusive economic zones, is becoming more accessible as the earth warms and the ice melts, clearing the way for shipping.

Panetta, Gen. Dempsey and the list of generals and admirals set to testify Thursday will emphasize the security benefits that will come if the US signs the treaty. Specifically, they argue that the treaty provides a mechanism for resolving disputes over strategically important waterways like the Strait of Hormuz.

"The Navy does not want gunboat diplomacy, they want to know there are legal rights that are defined and that protect the sea lanes," explained Kerry.

Environmental activists have voiced concern about the risks involved in the exploitation of the resources below the Arctic Circle and human rights activists fear the effect that drilling and shipping will have on the indigenous people of the Arctic.

But Kerry said that the best way to protect the environment and the rights of the indigenous people was to support the treaty and the regulations it would impose.

Kerry said, "You will have more protections without pure avarice or greed driving the process."

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