• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 5:54pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

America is a law unto itself when it comes to signing multilateral treaties

Jonathan Power reviews America's history of spurning global accords

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 8:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 2:14am

Who makes the law of the sea as China and Vietnam clash over China moving an oil rig close to an island some 150 nautical miles from the Vietnamese mainland?

One would hope that China, which has ratified the UN Law of the Sea treaty, would seek international arbitration. It refuses to.

Has this got something to do with the fact that the US has not ratified the treaty? The Chinese don't say so explicitly, but if the world's only superpower refuses to sign up, why should China pay the treaty due regard?

As for the US itself, it has an awful track record in ratifying international treaties, usually thanks to the Senate's habitual blocking behaviour. It takes only one-third of the Senate to stymie a treaty. Even though, for example, the US played an important role in setting up the International Criminal Court for prosecuting war crimes, and president Bill Clinton wanted the US to sign up, the threat of the Senate that "it would be dead on arrival" meant it was never submitted for ratification.

Nevertheless, as is often the case with the US, it supports the court's work in day-to-day practice. It does the same with the Law of the Sea. Still, failing to ratify makes the US position rather weak when it tries to lean on China to get off Vietnam's back.

David Kaye writes in Foreign Affairs that the Senate "rejects multilateral treaties as if it were sport". After the first world war, it rejected the US joining the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. Perhaps membership would have helped avert the rise of Nazi Germany by forging a more sensitive policy over German reparations. Who knows?

In more recent times, the US rejected the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which only Somalia and South Sudan, besides the US, have not signed).

The US finally ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1988, 40 years after it signed it. But this was only because right-wing president Ronald Reagan made a supreme effort to convince his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

It was 26 years - after 109 other states had signed up - before the US ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an instrument which it waged a long campaign for China to sign up to, and which it now uses to upbraid China's human rights abuses.

The US has still not ratified one of the other principal treaties enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The omission allows many countries, including China, to accuse the US of having double standards on human rights.

But all cannot be blamed on the Senate. In 1979, president Jimmy Carter filed a suit against Iran before the International Court of Justice for taking US diplomats hostage. Yet, six years later, when the court ruled against the US in a case over the mining of Nicaragua's harbours, the US, under Reagan, withdrew its membership.

Some of the above has only a tangential relationship with what is going on between Vietnam and China at the moment. But much relates to it. The US has failed to be credible in a good many parts of the international arena.

America has lived with its moral and diplomatic ambiguities over the application of international law for too long. If it wants other countries to toe the line, it has to toe the line itself.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist

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This article is now closed to comments

How About
Of course it does. Your 3-point scenario are self-closing but again blind-sighted by the fact the Xisha sovereignty claim by China pre-dated UNCLOS, the oil-rig is a protest to the s h i t stirrer for its irresponsible talk i.e. a political snub of China, so again it's very difficult for any fair view and reading of the situation to completely de-link USA and saying it's entirely China's fault.
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Jonathan's piece is both timely and poignant- the one superpower in the world is still sowing sorrows everywhere it goes because it's at exactly where it wants to be - to mete out conduct and treaties it is not bound to, to a world that must comply with. They are already beyond the reality-based world Karl Rove pontificated - absolute hypocrisy!
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More homework : Zbigniew Brzezinski the Grand Chessboard.
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I Gandhi
The US is a lawless terrorist state with no morals.
321manu
What the heck is "self-closing"?
How is the date of a sovereignty claim in relation to the advent of the UNCLOS convention of any relevance, when that very claim is not recognized?
The oil rig is a "protest"? Against what/who? The US? And against the US what?...the US pivot?So China protests against the US pivot by placing an oil rig in a territory over which an unresolved dispute with Vietnam is ongoing? Do you listen to yourself before you speak?
The ongoing dispute over the various rock-piles is NOT entirely China's fault. Every claimant who has failed to resolve the issues shares in the blame for the ongoing disputes. In fact, putting oil rigs up is the answer, since that is the only tangible reason why these rock piles are coveted to begin with. But the proper way forward is collaborative exploration. And it is China's fault insofar as trying to go it alone. And it is China's failure whereby she has failed to secure the trust of her regional neighbours.
Like I said, the US can be fairly criticized for its refusal to sign and/or ratify many international treaties. But that's no excuse for a country that has signed and ratified a treaty to suddenly renege on her own express commitments. That's schoolyard logic and child-like behaviour. China is good at throwing those kinds of fits. And that's fine. But then don't turn around and whine about how China doesn't enjoy the trust of her neighbours, after putting such juvenile antics on display.
321manu
This article is a fair criticism of the US. However, it has no relevance to the current China/Vietnam issue.
First off, China signed and ratified UNCLOS. It doesn't much matter who else did or did not sign it, when China signed it. If China wants to be some kind of global leader, this constant whining about what the US did or didn't do simply doesn't wash. Leaders lead, without always looking to what others are doing first.
And second, if CHina wants to renege on her signed/sealed/delivered international commitments, then she shouldn't even bother to feign surprise when her neighbours show no trust in her and have no inclination to cooperate with her. China is making her own bed, and should lie in it without complaining incessantly.
But third, if China wants to walk away from UNCLOS, then bye-bye EEZ. She will of course have no complaints if foreign oil rigs pop up all over the place around the various contested rock piles. Once again, China can't have it both ways, even though she often seems to want to.
Hum-Balang
A fair assessment Mr. Power.
clc2
Question: "Why should China pay the Law of the Sea treaty due regard?"
Answer: Because the Chinese government voluntarily signed it.
Even without the treaty, China still would not stand on high legal ground in the South China Sea. Many of the principles that were cherry-picked for the treaty by its drafters are still out there, independent of the treaty and available for guidance.
As to the death of the League of Nations, the author well knows that failure by the British and the French to rein in Mussolini in Ethiopia had much more to do with the League's demise than U.S. failure to join. The U.S. did sign the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 that tried to prevent a new naval arms race. That was as successful in the end as the League.
No piece of paper will stop bad actors from acting badly. Just ask Vladimir Putin, who violated a treaty signed by Russia to invade the Crimea.
Just now, the only neighbors that the Chinese and the Russians are getting along with are each other, now that neither feels a current need to post millions of troops on their border. That's why they just met.
This column is agit-prop from a very fashionable leftie.
How About
China can choose to abrogate it. A good analysis Jonathan- there are more treaties you could consider next eg Outer Space Treaty, (Sino)Taiwan-American Mutual Defense Treaty 1954 to name a couple.
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Look forward to read more of your work!
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