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Washington's phobia of global treaties

Why reject pacts to help the disabled or ban land mines?

By Karl F. Inderfurth / December 24, 2007



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Three quarters of the world's countries have signed an international agreement to ban antipersonnel landmines. The Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty – to never again use, produce, acquire, or export these so-called "hidden killers" of civilians – reached its 10th anniversary this month. But the United States is still not a signatory.

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Unfortunately this "just say no" approach to international treaties has become a pattern for the US, especially under the Bush administration. This trend must change. The president's successor should make it a high priority for the US to rejoin the world and reassume the country's role as a globally respected leader.

In some cases the rationale for US opposition is tied to security, economic, or legal considerations. But in all cases the unifying principle behind the Bush administration's refusal to join these treaties seems to be ideological – not wanting to encumber the US with further international obligations or to constrain America's freedom of action.

This "America unbound" approach is making the US the odd man out on critical global issues. In March of this year, a new human rights treaty was opened for signature at the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention would ensure that people around the world with disabilities enjoy the same rights as everyone else to equal protection before the law, and in work and education opportunities.

Entry into force of the new treaty would give those disabled by land mines – an estimated 473,000 people worldwide – as well as others injured by weapons of war an important boost in their efforts to rebuild shattered lives.

The treaty had the largest number of first-day signatories in the history of the UN – 81. Today that number is 119. The US is not one of them.

Nor was the US a participant at a conference concluded this month in Vienna. Some 130 nations attended to consider an international treaty banning cluster bombs, which "cause unacceptable harm to civilians." Once dropped, these munitions scatter hundreds of bomblets over a wide area. Many don't explode (the failure rate is up to 30 percent) and instead linger on as de facto land mines.

The use of these weapons is rising, as is the civilian toll. In the 2006 "summer war" in Lebanon, UN officials estimate, the Israeli military dropped at least 1.2 million cluster bomblets on southern Lebanon, most of them manufactured in the US. Human Rights Watch says the munitions have killed or injured more than 250 people in Lebanon since then.

Instead of sending delegates to the Vienna meeting, the Bush administration says it will seek to regulate the use of cluster munitions in another forum known as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Described by The Economist as "a ponderous process, going on since 1980," the CCW normally takes years to produce results, if then.

Ironies abound in this record of the US standing aside from international attempts to establish legally binding norms and obligations to safeguard civilians from the effects of war and its aftermath. Although not a signatory to the land-mine ban, the US is the largest financial contributor for land-mine clearing and victim assistance around the world. The UN convention to protect the rights of the disabled is patterned after landmark legislation first passed by the US in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But perhaps the greatest irony is that the US is missing the opportunity to take credit for much of the good that it does around the world. Instead of garnering appreciation, the US engenders resentment for its continued practice of "American exceptionalism."

That resentment spilled over at the recent Bali conference on global warming, where obstructionist tactics by the US delegation were met by boos from other delegates and a threatened European boycott of the Bush administration's climate conference in Hawaii next month. With the diplomatic equivalent of a gun to its head, the US showed a bit more flexibility. But it remained adamant in its refusal to join a global pact to cut greenhouse-gas pollution. Instead, the US said these goals should be "aspirational."

"Just saying no" is not the kind of leadership that many expect of the US, either at home or abroad. By joining other countries to establish mutually binding agreements, the US could seize the opportunity to demonstrate that it is truly committed to working with the international community to solve global problems.

Karl F. Inderfurth, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was the US special representative of the president and the secretary of state for global humanitarian demining from 1997-98.

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