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March 25, 2017

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U.S. committed to backing Law of the Sea convention

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday the United States was "committed" to ratifying a convention on world ocean use, as she called for more international cooperation to protect the North and South poles.

Her comments came at the first summit to tackle environmental and territorial issues affecting the Arctic and Antarctic. Some 60 countries and international organizations are meeting in Washington and Baltimore for the 11-day talks.

At the meeting, the United States and Norway said that the melting of glaciers was opening new navigation routes in the Arctic, thus creating economic opportunities -- including in transportation and energy -- for neighboring countries, but with that came new responsibility.

Clinton said Washington would work with other countries surrounding the region "to strengthen peace and security and support economic development and protect the environment." Those countries include Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark.

"The changes under way in the Arctic will have long-term impacts on our economic future, our energy future and indeed again the future of our planet, so it is crucial that we work together," she added.

The diplomatic chief said she and President Barack Obama were committed to having the US Congress ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, a United Nations text on maritime rights drafted in 1982.

The United States signed the convention's text in 1994, after securing changes to certain provisions deemed against US interests. But Congress never ratified the treaty, despite a lobbying effort by former president George W. Bush in 2007.

Global warming, she added, "raises the possibility of new energy exploration, which will, of course, have additional impacts on our environment."

Clinton was referring to huge unexplored reserves of some 90 billion barrels of oil and an even greater amount of natural gas in the Arctic, according to estimates by the US Geological Survey.

These resources constitute 13 percent of the world's untapped reserves of oil and 30 percent of reserves of natural gas.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store noted that merchandise between the Japanese port of Yokohama and the Dutch port of Rotterdam would see a 40 percent reduction when merchant ships would be able to use the North-West Passage being opened north of Canada.

He called for bordering countries, which are members of the Arctic Council, to cooperate closely to avoid an escalation of conflict.

Russia recently announced it intended to militarize the Arctic in order to protect its interests there, while Canada seeks to control 200 nautical miles of Arctic waters.

Ottawa has been consistently reaffirming its sovereignty over the region, in particular the North-West Passage and its thousands of uninhabited islands. Due to melting ice, the passage could become an important future maritime route linking Asia to Europe.

But the United States and other countries say it is an international maritime route, and should thus remain open.

Participants also spoke about the Antarctic, which is protected by a treaty signed in Washington 50 years ago.

"We have no time to lose in tackling this crisis" and take new measures to protect the region, said Clinton after having recalled the collapse over the weekend of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, seen as an alarming sign of melting of the glaciers.

She said that Obama had provided Congress with an annex to the treaty for ratification. The annex set the obligations of signatories in case of an environmental catastrophe in the South Pole region.

The United States is also seeking to limit tourism in the region, including the docking of cruise ships, Clinton said.

Clinton was hosting the first joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the Arctic Council, which the State Department called "the two most important bodies involved with diplomacy at the Poles."

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