America’s Shame: Neglected Treaties

Matt Cravatta, Paul Kurtz

The culture wars of the past two decades continue to be waged, most overtly in a presidential election campaign of extraordinary duration and ferocity. Much has been said about domestic policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in all the heated campaign rhetoric, another issue is almost totally ignored.

A vital foreign policy concern is being egregiously neglected: America’s dismal record regarding its treaty obligations. Since taking power in 2001, the Bush administration has blocked the adoption of numerous treaties. Over an even longer period, the U.S. Senate failed or refused to ratify treaties already signed. This behavior has appalled our friends worldwide and angered the world community.

During the Clinton administration, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blocked ratification of worthwhile treaties. Many of those treaties remain unratified today. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s record in blocking treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol is well known.

The United States Constitution describes the duties of the President and Senate regarding treaties as follows: “[The President] shall have Power, by and with the consent of the Senate, to make treaties; provided two-thirds of the Senate concur” (Article II, Section 2; #2). Both the current president and Senate have failed to live up to their obligations. Why?

Increasingly, U.S. foreign policy has come under the control of neo-conservative religious nationalists who view the United States as a superpower that must not be constrained by any international treaty, even a human rights treaty, whose provisions exceed the limits in U.S. law. By so acting, they refuse to allow the emergence of any new laws or rules that are supported by international consensus. The limits of American law become de facto limits for the world.

The view in Washington was once very different. Following World War II, there was great support in the United States for a new kind of world order based on cooperation among nations. This country was in the vanguard of those proclaiming and defending explicit visions of human rights. By contrast, U.S. foreign policy in recent years has been unilateral and preemptive, costing us friends worldwide.

Because the issue of blocked treaties has not received the attention it deserves, we offer the following list of treaties that the United States has failed to ratify. For those who believe that the building of a new planetary community is vital for world peace and prosperity, this should be a major factor in the upcoming election. It is an issue the Foreign Relations Committee needs to address, especially if we hope to repair the poor reputation of the United States in the world and, in time, hope for our nation to resume its former moral leadership.


A 1999 rally supporing the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and satirizing then-Sen. Jesse Helms, (R-N.C.) Several environmental, religious and peace organizations participated in the rally. Photo by Scott J. Ferrell [Photo via Newscom]


Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty

Signed and ratified, summer 1972; United States unilaterally withdrew on December 13, 2001. By pulling out of the ABM Treaty, the United States became the first major power to unilaterally withdraw from a nuclear arms-control treaty.


Signed September 24, 1996; never ratified. The U.S. Senate voted in 1999 to reject ratification of the test-ban treaty signed by President Clinton. In early 2002, the Bush White House released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), hinting at a return to testing and a willingness to use nuclear weapons in a first-strike attack.

UN Framework Convention on Climate Control (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol

UNFCCC ratified October 15, 1992. Kyoto Protocol signed November 12, 1998; never ratified by the U.S. Although President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, the State Department under Bush rejected it on the grounds that it would harm the U.S. economy. U.S. representatives at the 2007 climate summit in Bali who maintained the same position were booed and widely condemned. Recently, the administration’s recalcitrance on this issue may be softening.


Signed July 17, 1980; never ratified. The United States remains one of a handful of countries, including Iran and Sudan, not to ratify CEDAW, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter. The treaty continues to face resistance from conservatives in the Senate.


Signed February 16, 1995; never ratified. Only the United States and Somalia have not ratified the Convention, which was signed by President Bill Clinton. Among other things, the Convention forbids capital punishment of minors. Senate conservatives who support the death penalty for minors continue to oppose the treaty.


Signed October 5, 1977; never ratified. Though this Covenant was signed by President Jimmy Carter, the United States maintains that economic, social, and cultural rights are “aspirational,” not inalienable or enforceable. One hundred and forty-two countries have already ratified the Covenant.


Signed April 10, 1972; ratified March 23, 1975; Draft Proposal rejected in June, 2001. After the BWC was drafted in 1972 and signed by President Richard Nixon, its 144 parties agreed that the convention’s enforcement mechanisms were inadequate. An ad hoc group was formed in 1994 to negotiate changes. When the group presented its draft proposal in 2001, the United States rejected it and has consistently refused to return to negotiations, effectively derailing the treaty.


Signed January 13, 1993; ratified April 25, 1997. The United States ratified this Convention, signed by President George H.W. Bush in the final days of his presidency, but set limits on how it could be applied in the United States, effectively gutting its provisions. For example, the United States specifies that material cannot be transferred outside the country for testing, limits which facilities can be tested, and gives the president the right to refuse inspection on the grounds of “national security.”


Proclaimed 1997; became international law March 1, 1999; never signed by the United States. The United States remains the only member of NATO other than Turkey not to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. The United States claims that land mines are essential to protect U.S. soldiers in heavily armed places like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.


Signed December 31, 2000; unsigned June 6, 2002. In 2002, the Bush administration made the unprecedented move of “unsigning” the treaty establishing the ICC. The United States has systematically undermined the ICC by signing bilateral agreements with countries in which U.S. personnel operate to exempt American military and government personnel from the court’s jurisdiction.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on Capitol Hill in September 2007. The UN accord has languished in the U.S. Senate since former President Bill Clinton submitted it thirteen years ago. Only recently has the Bush administration begun to seek its ratification. (Photo credit: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

Negotiated 1973–1982; came into force 1994; unsigned by the United States. To date, 155 countries and the European Community have joined in this Convention. On May 15, 2007, President Bush announced that he had urged the Senate to approve UNCLOS. On October 31, 2007, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 17 to 4 to send the treaty to the full U.S. Senate for a vote. Status: after decades of negotiations, the White House now supports ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention with an understanding that parties to this treaty have the exclusive right to define which of their own activities at sea qualify as “military activities,” thereby evading the Convention’s principal goal of limiting militaristic control of the open oceans.


Matt Cravatta

Center for Inquiry manager of print and direct mail operations.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The culture wars of the past two decades continue to be waged, most overtly in a presidential election campaign of extraordinary duration and ferocity. Much has been said about domestic policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in all the heated campaign rhetoric, another issue is almost totally ignored. A vital foreign policy …

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