On International Treaties, the United States Refuses to Play Ball
from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

On International Treaties, the United States Refuses to Play Ball

In lists of state parties to globally significant treaties, the United States is often notably absent. Ratification hesitancy is a chronic impairment to international U.S. credibility and influence.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the seventy-sixth Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 21, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the seventy-sixth Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 21, 2021. Timothy A. Clary/Pool via Reuters

The United States enters into more than two-hundred treaties each year on a range of international issues, including peace, defense, human rights, and the environment. Despite this seemingly impressive figure, the United States constantly fails to sign or ratify treaties the rest of the world supports. It has failed to ratify treaties that tackle biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions, protect the rights of children and women, and govern international waters. For a country frequently looked to as a global leader, the United States has consistently failed to step up in international partnerships. In fact, the United States has one of the worst records of any country in ratifying human rights and environmental treaties.

Why hasn’t the United States stepped up to the plate? According to scholars and policymakers, one major reason is the fear of treaties infringing on national sovereignty. The United States shuns treaties that appear to subordinate its governing authority to that of an international body like the United Nations. The United States consistently prioritizes its perceived national interests over international cooperation, opting not to ratify to protect the rights of U.S. businesses or safeguard the government’s freedom to act on national security. Politics also poses a significant barrier to ratification. While presidents can sign treaties, ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. Oftentimes, the power of special interest groups and the desire of politicians to maintain party power, on top of existing concerns of sovereignty, almost assures U.S. opposition to treaty ratification.

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The failure of the United States to lead on international treaty accession can have dangerous consequences. It can undermine the credibility of those treaties, weaken international partnerships, and raise concerns about the United States’ own commitments to matters such as human rights and environmental protection. By refusing to ratify treaties the rest of the world supports, the United States can lose other countries’ trust and gives up the influence of shaping the future direction of global rules. Furthermore, abstaining serves as a barrier to resolving critical global and regional issues, implicitly giving permission to other countries to free ride and follow the rule of law established by treaties only when it is in their best interest. Given these implications, I outline ten treaties the United States has not ratified and highlight arguments opponents cite for the lack of ratification.

 

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention

Date adopted: June 8, 1977 (Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II)

Date entered into force: December 7, 1978 (Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II)

Current number of states parties: 174 (Additional Protocol I); 169 (Additional Protocol II)

Action by the United States: Signed, not ratified

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Additional Protocol I clarifies and expands on the Geneva Convention to accommodate technological developments in international warfare after World War II. Additional Protocol II strives to provide better protection for victims of international conflicts.

The United States did not ratify Additional Protocol I because of concerns that it would undermine the humanitarian laws of war and endanger civilians by elevating the legal status of terrorist groups to combatants. The United States, as well as other Western countries, did not ratify Additional Protocol II because it excludes conflicts in which dissident armed groups occupy no significant territory but conduct sporadic guerrilla operations.

 

Arms Trade Treaty

Date adopted: April 2, 2013

Date entered into force: December 24, 2014

Current number of states parties: 110

Action by the United States: Signed, not ratified

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The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aims to prevent and eradicate illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms by establishing standards governing arms transfers.

Concerns that the ATT would pose a threat to the second amendment and supersede the U.S. Constitution prevented its ratification. U.S. gun rights organizations overwhelmingly opposed the treaty. The National Rifle Association alleged the treaty would impose limits on domestic gun sales.

 

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

Date adopted: September 10, 1996

Date entered into force: Not in Force

Current number of states parties: 170

Action by the United States: Signed, not ratified

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The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a legally binding ban on nuclear explosive testing.

Opponents to the CTBT argued it would limit the United States’ ability to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile while failing to prevent cheating by other parties, such as Russia. Partisan divides in the U.S. Senate made ratification difficult, and the treaty was voted down fifty-one to forty-eight, angering many world leaders. It was the first time a security-related treaty was rejected since the Treaty of Versailles.

 

Convention on Biological Diversity

Date adopted: May 22, 1992

Date entered into force: December 29, 1993

Current number of states parties: 196

Action by the United States: Signed; not ratified

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the international legal instrument for the “conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." The objective of the CBD is to encourage countries to implement actions that lead to a more sustainable future.

The United States did not ratify the CBD because of concerns that it did not adequately protect the intellectual property of U.S. corporations; could subject the United States to the authority of an international body, including with respect to natural resource management; and could impose financial costs. The main barrier to ratification was opposition to the Convention by many members of the Republican party at the time.

 

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Date adopted: December 18, 1979

Date entered into force: September 3, 1981

Current number of states parties: 189

Action by the United States: Signed, not ratified

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The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) defines discrimination against women and establishes an agenda to eliminate it. Often described as an international bill of rights for women, CEDAW maintains that state parties must guarantee women equal rights and opportunities and prohibits gender discrimination of any kind.

Opponents argued that accepting the UN monitoring provisions under CEDAW would erode U.S. principles of democratic self-governance and individual liberty. Moreover, partisan conflict over women’s rights, changes in the geopolitical climate, and the United States’ commitment to unilateralism also pose barriers to ratification.  

 

Mine Ban Treaty

Date adopted: September 18, 1997

Date entered into force: March 1, 1999

Current number of states parties: 164

Action by the United States: Neither signed nor ratified

The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty or the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, intends to end the use of anti-personnel landmines (APLs) globally.

The United States did not ratify the treaty because it could limit U.S. freedom to act in its own national security interest. The Department of Defense was specifically concerned about the necessity of using landmines as a deterrent on the Korean Peninsula. As such, the Clinton administration pushed for the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to be a specific exception to the treaty.

 

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

Date adopted: July 17, 1998

Date entered into force: July 1, 2002

Current number of states parties: 123

Action by the United States: Signed but withdrew

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court established the International Criminal Court, the only court that prosecutes individuals for international crimes such as genocide and war crimes.

Opponents to the Rome Statute argued ratification would leave the United States vulnerable to politically motivated prosecutions of its citizens and soldiers and subordinate U.S. courts to an international tribunal.

 

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

Date adopted: May 22, 2001

Date entered into force: May 17, 2004

Current number of states parties: 185

Action by the United State: Signed, not ratified

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants promotes the protection of human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants, widely distributed chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods of time and have health and environmental risks.

The United States did not ratify the Stockholm Convention due to concerns it would allow the United Nations to determine U.S. pollution standards. In fact, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s official transmittal of the Stockholm Convention to the Senate revealed that additional legislative authority would be necessary to ensure the treaty’s implementation.

 

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Date adopted: December 16, 1966

Date entered into force: January 3, 1976

Current number of states parties: 171

Action by the United States: Signed, not ratified

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The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights works toward granting economic, social, and cultural rights to non-self-governing and trust territories and individuals.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders prevented the ratification of the covenant. Ratifying the covenant would have been contrary to the Carter administration’s policy of pursuing progressive, rather than immediate, change on economic, social and cultural rights. In addition, the Bush administration viewed economic, social, and cultural values not as rights but as goals. The Obama administration did not seek action on the covenant because it would introduce policies that oppose universal healthcare.

 

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

Date adopted: December 10, 1982

Date entered into force: November 16, 1994

Current number of states parties: 168

Action by the United States: Neither signed nor ratified

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) establishes a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities.

The United States did not ratify UNCLOS because of fears among conservative Republicans that it would undermine U.S. sovereignty by transferring “ownership” of the high seas to the United Nations. Opponents argued that UNCLOS would also allow global bureaucrats to overrule U.S. naval operations and require U.S. companies to pay royalties to the International Seabed Authority. The Reagan administration also feared being sued for failing to meet environmental standards for the high seas, should the United States accede to UNCLOS.

 

The Future of U.S. Treaty Ratification

Continuing to refuse to ratify the above treaties and countless others erodes U.S. global leadership and sends a message to the rest of the world that the United States remains unwilling to commit to action on issues like human rights and arms control. A stalwart commitment to a narrow conception of national sovereignty and to the ideal of American exceptionalism undermine the United States’ ability to participate as a leader and partner on the international stage.

If President Joe Biden wants to prove that “America is back,” he should attempt to make progress on signing or ratifying several of these major international treaties. Unfortunately, any attempts of ratification will be a tall order in the Senate. Several Republican Senators even resist approving routine political appointments. Furthermore, petty political disputes and foreign policy aims, on top of the Republican priority of defending natural sovereignty and protecting the U.S. Constitution, signal potential political opposition to ratification. After the Trump administration, sovereignty has become almost inextricably linked to the Republican party platform. If the United States wants to maintain its position as a global leader and further important global and regional policy goals, it must move away from its self-defeating sovereignty obsessions and overcome political barriers, despite the odds.

Anya Wahal was an intern for the International Institutions and Global Governance program.