Obama Pledge on Treaties a Complex Undertaking

December 1st, 2008 - by admin

Bob Egelko / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-12-01 23:40:48


SAN FRANCISCO (December 1, 2008) — President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to restore the United States’ international standing extends far beyond front-page topics such as closing Guantanamo and banning torture, into areas as diverse as nuclear testing, the rights of women and people with disabilities, and military and commercial activities in the world’s oceans.

As a candidate, Obama promised to seek Senate ratification of long-stalled treaties on a nuclear test ban, women’s equality and the law of the sea, and to sign a UN convention on disability rights. He also vowed to reverse President Bush’s policies on global warming and to join negotiations toward a long-term treaty on greenhouse-gas emissions.

The global warming talks, which face a deadline of December 2009, are a rare example of an international accord that has captured public attention, largely because of Bush’s opposition to mandatory emissions limits. Most treaties stay below the political radar, with often-complex subject matter, nebulous constituencies and a two-thirds majority requirement that can leave them languishing in the Senate for years.

The American Society of International Law, an association of academics, officials and business leaders, sent questions on treaties to Obama and other presidential candidates during the primaries. Scholars from the organization differed about Obama’s prospects for getting treaties ratified, but said they liked his attitude.

Contrast with Bush
“The Obama campaign talked about the international rule of law and human rights, working with our allies, suggesting it will take the treaty process quite a bit more seriously than the Bush administration did,” said David Kaye, who heads a human rights program at UCLA Law School and was a State Department attorney for a decade.

Bush has actually won Senate approval of scores of treaties, mostly small-scale agreements on subjects like extradition. He has been more prominent, however, in opposing pacts he sees as overly restrictive of US prerogatives.

Bush opposed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which former President Bill Clinton signed but never submitted to the Senate. And Bush took the unprecedented step of withdrawing Clinton’s presidential signature from the treaty forming the International Criminal Court for war crimes and human rights prosecutions.

Bush has also declared that the Geneva Convention rules on interrogations and trials didn’t apply to prisoners at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and secret CIA sites.

Obama promised a different approach.

“Promoting strong international norms helps us advance many interests, including (nuclear) nonproliferation, free and fair trade, a clean environment, and protecting our troops in wartime,” he told the international law society. “Because the (Bush) administration cast aside international norms that reflect American values, such as the Geneva Conventions, we are less able to promote those values abroad.”

Primary Focus
Obama cited three treaties he would concentrate on ratifying: the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Last December, Obama cited a fourth treaty that he said he would sign and ask the Senate to ratify, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Missing from his to-do list, at least so far, are the International Criminal Court — which could subject US officials and military personnel to prosecution — and treaties banning land mines and cluster bombs. All three would face Defense Department resistance, and Obama has said he would consult with military commanders before deciding whether to ask the Senate to ratify the International Criminal Court.

Although the treaties Obama has endorsed may be less controversial, “I don’t see any really easy wins on the list,” said K. Russell Lamotte, a former State Department attorney now in private practice in Washington, D.C.

Climate Pact Toughest
Most difficult of all, he said, may be the negotiation and ratification of a post-Kyoto climate change agreement.

Now that a US administration is willing to take part in the talks, Lamotte said, Obama must decide what emissions limits to accept, how to pay for them during a period of economic convulsion, and how to bring key players such as China and India on board — and then present the final product to most of the same senators who killed a modest global-warming bill earlier this year.

“It’s a very daunting process,” Lamotte said.

Of the unratified treaties on Obama’s list, the nuclear test ban agreement is the most substantial and probably the least likely to win ratification. The accord, passed by the UN General Assembly in 1996, was defeated by a Republican-controlled Senate in 1999.

The test ban treaty has never taken effect — it requires ratification by the 44 “nuclear-capable” nations — but the United States and most other countries observe voluntary moratoriums on nuclear explosive testing.

The Law of the Sea treaty may face an easier road. The treaty, adopted by the United Nations in 1982, includes protections for nations’ coastal waters and guidelines for commercial use of international waters. Military and business leaders, environmental groups and the Bush administration support it, but a bloc of conservative Republicans, citing concerns over US sovereignty, has kept if off the Senate floor.

“This is the one that may be the highest priority,” said Duncan Hollis, a Temple University law professor and former State Department treaty lawyer. “It’s not often that industry and environmental groups are in favor” of the same treaty.

Women’s Treaty
The women’s-rights treaty is even older — it won UN approval in 1979 and was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, but has never reached the Senate floor. Every other industrialized nation has ratified it.

The treaty proclaims a woman’s right to equality in all areas of society, including employment and family relations. It does not explicitly address abortion, but says women should have access to “information, counseling and services in family planning,” and equal rights to determine “the number and spacing of their children.”

That alarms anti-abortion groups. Other conservative opponents have cited pronouncements by the treaty’s oversight committee — such as a report that said Mothers’ Day in Belarus fostered sex-role stereotypes — as evidence of a radical feminist agenda.

American Society of International Law commentators said such opposition will make Senate passage of the treaty difficult — though they say the accord would have little effect on US law because it requires only that nations take “all appropriate measures” to protect women’s rights.

US Interpretations
The United States has interpreted other human rights accords to make them consistent with its laws, said Allen Weiner, a former State Department attorney who now teaches international law at Stanford.

“As a domestic law matter, it’s utterly symbolic” but nevertheless important, Weiner said of the women’s rights treaty. “It’s a commitment we’re making to an international human rights regime.”

Ratification “makes us somewhat more credible” to the rest of the world, Weiner said. As long as the United States is unwilling to join a widely accepted agreement on women’s rights, he said, “it’s difficult to demand that fundamentalist Islamic societies change their treatment of women.”

International Accords on Obama’s Agenda
Treaties that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to present to the Senate for ratification:

Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Would prohibit all nuclear explosive testing. Takes effect only when ratified by all 44 “nuclear-capable” nations, including the United States. Passed by the UN General Assembly in 1996 and signed that year by President Bill Clinton. Rejected by the Senate in 1999.

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: Defines nations’ rights in managing their coastal zones and sets rules for commercial use of international waters and resources. Passed by the General Assembly in 1982, took effect in 1994. Signed by Clinton in 1994. Approved by Senate Foreign Relations Committee most recently in October 2007, but no floor vote.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: Declares equal rights for women “in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” and requires nations to take “all appropriate measures” to ensure equality. Passed by the General Assembly in 1979, took effect in 1981. Signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Approved by Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, but no floor vote.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Requires nations to abolish legislation, customs and practices that discriminate against the disabled, and to establish policies that promote independent living and full participation in the community. Passed by the General Assembly in 2006, took effect in May 2008. Not yet signed by the United States.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.