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 U.N. 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
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
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
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 U.S. 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."
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 U.S. 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
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 U.S. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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.
The women's-rights treaty is even older - it won U.N. approval in
1979 and was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, but has never
reached the Senate floor. Every other industrialized nation has
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 U.S. law because it
requires only that nations take "all appropriate measures" to protect
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
National security: The team that Obama is introducing today has embraced a shift in resources. A5
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 U.N. General Assembly in 1996 and signed that year by
President Bill Clinton. Rejected by the Senate in 1999.
U.N. 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.