Lawless at Sea A Case Study in the Dangers of the Law of the Sea Treaty

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Lawless at Sea A case study in the dangers of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

The curious case of the U.S. hedge fund, the Argentine ship and Ghana is getting curiouser, and now it has taken a turn against national sovereignty. That’s the only reasonable conclusion after a bizarre ruling this month from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg.

The tribunal—who knew it existed?—ordered the Republic of Ghana to overrule a decision of its own judiciary that had enforced a U.S. court judgment. The Hamburg court is the misbegotten child of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Sold as a treaty to ensure the free movement of people and goods on the high seas, it was rejected by Ronald Reagan as an effort to control and redistribute the resources of the world’s oceans.

The U.S. never has ratified the treaty, despite a push by President Obama, and now the solons of Hamburg have demonstrated the wisdom of that decision. While debates on the treaty have centered around the powers a country might enjoy hundreds of miles off its coast, many analysts have simply assumed that nations would still exercise control over the waters just offshore.

Now the Hamburg court has trampled local law in a case involving a ship sitting in port, and every country is now on notice that a Hamburg court is claiming authority over its internal waters.

Specifically, Hamburg ordered Ghana to release a sailing ship owned by the Argentine navy. On October 2, a subsidiary of U.S. investment fund Elliott Management persuaded a Ghanaian judge to order the seizure of the vessel. The old-fashioned schooner, used to train cadets, was on a tour of West Africa.

U.S. hedge funds don’t normally seize naval ships, but in this case Elliott and the Ghanaian court are on solid ground. Elliott owns Argentine bonds on which Buenos Aires has been refusing to pay since its 2001 default. Elliott argues that a contract is a contract, and a federal court in New York agrees. Argentina had freely decided to issue its debt in U.S. capital markets and had agreed in its bond contracts to waive the sovereign immunity that would normally prevent lenders from seizing things like three-masted frigates.

To his credit, Judge Richard Adjei-Frimpong of Ghana’s commercial court noted that Argentina had specifically waived its immunity when borrowing the money and that under Ghanaian law the ship could therefore be attached by creditors with a valid U.S. judgment registered in Ghana. He ordered the ship held at port until Buenos Aires starts following the orders of the U.S. court.

But in its recent ruling, which ordered Ghana to release the ship by December 22, the Hamburg court claimed that international law requires immunity for the Argentine “warship,” as if Argentina never waived immunity and as if this is an actual warship. On Wednesday, Ghana released the vessel, and the ship set sail from the port of Tema for its trans-Atlantic voyage.

So here we have a case in which a small African nation admirably tried to adhere to the rule of law. Yet it was bullied by a global tribunal serving the ends of Argentina, which has brazenly violated the law in refusing to pay its debts and defying Ghana’s court order. The next time the Senate moves to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, Ghana should be exhibit A for opponents.

A version of this article appeared Dec. 24, 2012, on page A12 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lawless at Sea.

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