International law expert supports ratification of Law of the Sea Convention

August 16 2007

1949 grad meets professor and students involved in oceanography

SEATTLE - An Indiana State University alumnus who is an expert on maritime law says America is paying the price for its failure to ratify a 25-year-old international agreement for management of the world’s oceans and their resources.

Inaction on the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been “a real loss” for the United States and “it’s going to be getting worse,” according to William T. Burke, professor emeritus of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington.

Burke addressed the topic during a meeting at his home in northeast Seattle with an Indiana State University professor and two students who had just wrapped up a week-long oceanographic research cruise off the California and Oregon coasts.

UNCLOS was adopted in 1982, building on agreements that had been in place since the 1950s. President Clinton signed the agreement in 1994 after changes were made to address U.S. concerns. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then chaired by Indiana’s Dick Lugar, endorsed the agreement in 2004. President Bush, as he did three years ago, announced in May that he was urging approval by the full Senate. However, no vote has been taken.

“We can’t even be party to adjudications unless we are a member of that treaty,” Burke said. “We also may be losing out on potential mine sites in the deep ocean that previously did not merit exploitation. The price structure on metals is changing drastically and those metals will be very valuable as time goes by, primarily because of demand in India and China.”

Co-author of a landmark 1962 book on the Law of the Sea, Burke continues to stay abreast of developments and is considered a leading authority on the topic. He is currently supervising the Ph.D. dissertation of a student at the University of Malta, home of the International Maritime Law Institute.

After beginning his teaching while a graduate student at Yale in the 1950s, Burke served as a law professor at The Ohio State University for six years prior to joining the University of Washington faculty in 1968. Burke said he was attracted to Washington because it is the only university in the country that offers law, marine sciences and fisheries on the same campus.

Burke met with Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology at Indiana State, along with David Bohnert, geology major from Jasper, and Ellen Brouillette of Vincennes, who completed her bachelor’s degree at ISU in May and is now a graduate student at the University of Georgia.

The ISU Foundation provided funding for Rathburn and the students to extend their stay on the West Coast in order to meet Burke, who offered praise and encouragement to today’s generation of oceanographic researchers. Rathburn’s research utilizes fossil records of tiny sea creatures to track historical changes in ocean temperatures, and involves the study of undersea methane seeps, a large source of greenhouse gases.

“What you’re working on is very important and it’s a valuable thing to do,” Burke said. “It’s a very exciting field, I think, and it’s going to make a lot of difference.”

Fresh from the research expedition funded by the National Science Foundation that allowed him to work alongside some of the world’s top oceanographers, Bohnert said it “was just an overwhelming experience to meet a man of such world-known status and to realize that he attended ISU.”

The visit with Burke provided “a great opportunity to meet someone who has had such a significant impact on marine science operations and the Law of the Sea. It is wonderful for students to get the opportunity to meet an ISU alumnus with such insight, and someone who confirmed the importance of marine science even to landlocked states such as Indiana,” said Rathburn.

“It is amazing the monumental events that people partake in and are responsible for,” added Brouillette. “To be able to meet a man that has done so much with his life is very encouraging, and to realize that he once started from Indiana State in the same classrooms I did, is that much more encouraging for me as I continue my education.”

A 1949 graduate of Indiana State, Burke was born in Brazil, Ind. and grew up in Terre Haute. He went on to complete a law degree at Indiana University and a doctorate from Yale.

For Burke, a World War II veteran who completed his bachelor’s degree in just over two years, Indiana State provided “sort of an introduction to the world,” he said, noting students learned as much from one another as they did from their professors.

“You had all these guys, and some women, coming in who had already been around the world a lot - some shot up - and it was a real learning experience,” he said.

Asked for some grandfatherly words of wisdom for today’s college students, Burke said, “I guess the main advice I could give is don’t be distracted. Now there are so many things that can occupy your time. You can’t get away from the world at all, and you can waste a lot of time fiddling around on a computer if you’re not careful. You really have to be focused.”

William T. Burke Brazil, Ind.-born William T. Burke, an ISU alumnus and professor emeritus of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington, discusses oceanographic research and the Law of the Sea on the deck of his home in northeast Seattle. (Tracy Ford/ISU)

Burke/Rathburn ISU alumnus William T. Burke (right), professor emeritus of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington, chats on the deck of his Seattle home with Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology, during a visit with Rathburn and two students involved in oceanographic research. (Tracy Ford/ISU)

Contacts: Tony Rathburn, associate professor of geology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2269 or; William T. Burke, professor emeritus of law and marine sciences, University of Washington,

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or

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Story Highlights

William Burke, professor emeritus of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington, says the U.S. is paying the price for its failure to ratify a 25-year-old United Nations agrement for management of the world's oceans and their resources. The 1949 ISU graduate made his comments during a meeting with a current ISU professor and students who are involved in oceanography.

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