U.S. Senate panel backs Law of the Sea treaty

(Adds military comments)

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - A Senate panel voted on Wednesday in favor of ratifying an international pact on ocean shipping and deep-sea mining that has languished in Congress for years because critics say it could hurt naval operations and industry.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17-4 to back the accord, sending it to the full Senate where it needs a two-thirds vote to win final approval.

President George W. Bush wants the Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying it would allow U.S. armed forces to move freely on the oceans.

More than 150 nations have already joined the 25-year-old pact.

Some Republicans and other critics have argued it would hurt U.S security by overemphasizing peaceful use of the oceans. They cite limits it would impose on collecting intelligence and submarine operations in territorial waters.

Some also have criticized provisions they say would restrict U.S. sovereignty, impose new environmental obligations and thwart commercial development of the deep seabed.

Critics add that the accord would set global rules discouraging deep-sea mining of minerals such as cobalt and manganese.


Supporters say the treaty ensures the U.S. military will not need a "permission slip" in the future to pass through the territorial waters of other nations, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation for the world's shipping industry.

Joining the treaty also gives the United States a seat at the table to resolve disputes, such as those that could arise over new sea lanes opening up in the Arctic, supporters say.

The treaty guarantees U.S. access to oil, natural gas and other natural resources extending 200 miles (322 km) out from the U.S. shoreline -- an area covering nearly 300,000 square miles (776,900 sq km).

"We should become a party to the convention," said committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"The oil and gas industry is unanimous in its support of the convention ... . I'm unaware of any ocean industry that has expressed opposition to this treaty," Biden said.

Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, one of four senators voting in opposition, said he had concerns about dispute resolutions and international seabed authority.

The U.S. Navy already follows many of the rules established by the treaty and backs ratification. It says the treaty will give sailors greater protection under international law.

U.S. ratification also should draw other nations into related partnerships, the Navy said on Wednesday, citing the Proliferation Security Initiative that allows the United States and allies to search ships suspected of carrying weapons.

Specifically, Indonesia and Malaysia have told the U.S. military they will join that initiative if the United States ratifies the Law of the Sea treaty, according to Rear Adm. Bruce MacDonald, judge advocate general of the Navy.

"This goes to bringing other nations on board with other kinds of agreements that we want them to join us on," he said.

MacDonald noted the ranks of nations that also had not signed onto the treaty included U.S. adversaries.

"Let me tell you who we're with," he said. "We're with Syria not signing. We're with Libya. We're with Iran. We're with North Korea." (Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts)