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The high costs of abandoning international law
by Jeffrey D. Sachs
Boston Globe, agencies
March 2017
Even before Donald Trump put America first, the Republican Party had largely walked away from international treaty law. Now Trump’s “America First” is likely to mean a further denigration of international law and process, to the further detriment of America’s national security and long-term interests.
Consider the following tale of our times. In 1973 the United States passed landmark legislation to protect people with disabilities, and this was followed by the pioneering Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The ADA in turn inspired the member states of the United Nations to adopt the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
President Barack Obama signed the CRPD in 2009, but the US Senate then refused to ratify it, voting 61 in favor, 38 against, falling five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for ratification. The United States thereby joined a handful of other countries that have signed but not ratified the treaty, including Libya, North Korea, and Uzbekistan. One-hundred-sixty other countries have ratified the treaty, including Canada, Japan, most European countries, and indeed most of the world.
The 38 Senators in opposition, all Republican, were persuaded by anti-UN activists that the Treaty “would surrender our nation’s sovereignty to unelected UN bureaucrats.” They also argued that since this country already had such protections in the ADA, joining the treaty was of no benefit to the United States. They feared that the treaty would somehow prevent home schooling and other parental rights.
To a remarkable extent, the Republican Party has thrown down the gauntlet on UN treaties: If the rest of the world agrees on something, even something modeled on US leadership, it is treated as suspect and even dangerous for the United States to join with those countries in a treaty, on the ostensible grounds that the treaty obligations would infringe US sovereignty.
The list of global agreements in which the United States refuses to participate is long and growing. Another notable case is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to prevent the abuse, exploitation, and capital punishment of children. This treaty was adopted by the UN in 1989 and came into force in 1990, after a sufficient number of countries had ratified it. The United States held out. Others kept joining.
Now every single UN member state except the United States has ratified the treaty, but US Senate Republicans still balk. Once again, US conservatives argue that the treaty would violate US sovereignty.
The United States has stayed out of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1991), the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty (1997), the Ottawa Land Mine Treaty (1997), and the International Criminal Court (1998), among many others. In each case, one argument is that treaty membership would limit US sovereignty.
Other reasons are given as well. The US Senate, again largely on the Republican side, objected to the UN Law of the Sea on the grounds that it would limit American companies from earning profits from deep-sea mining. It objected to the Convention on Biological Diversity on the grounds that protecting endangered species would threaten the private property rights of US farmers and ranchers, especially in the large landholdings in the west. Hard-line senators objected to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on the grounds that it was not verifiable, despite expert opinion to the contrary. The United States has stayed out of the land mine treaty not just because of Senate opposition but because the US military has continued to use land mines in the defense of South Korea.
The US failure to join the International Criminal Court is especially revealing. First, the United States voted against the ICC in the UN General Assembly, alongside Iraq, Libya, China, Yemen, and a few others, after unsuccessfully demanding the right as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to veto cases before the court. Then, in 2000, President Clinton signed the Rome Statute establishing the ICC but did not submit the statute for Senate ratification.
Next, George W. Bush formally notified the court that the US would not seek membership, expressing concern that US military personnel might be subjected to ICC charges. The US pursued a policy of signing more than 100 “bilateral immunity agreements” (BIAs) in which countries commit not to deliver US nationals to the ICC. Some countries faced cutoffs in US foreign aid when they balked at signing BIAs. In 2009, Obama declared that the US would participate in the ICC as an observer.
While strongly resisting ICC jurisdiction vis-a-vis US nationals, the US government has repeatedly and insistently called on the ICC to take judicial action against other countries’ leaders — for example, Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.
The Senate’s aversion to any form of UN treaties is now so intense and pervasive that none have been ratified in the past decade and only one (on cybercrime) in the past 15 years. The list of unsigned or unratified treaties continues to grow, and the US increasingly stands almost alone in the world in remaining aloof from these UN agreements. Our disdain for globally shared and negotiated rules is clear for all the world to see.
The logic of treaty-making should be clear enough. In principle, treaties involve areas where nation states can potentially do serious harm to other nation states (pollution, arms races, arms trade, war) or where vital global protection of vulnerable populations (children, refugees) is at stake. Countries give up their sovereignty reciprocally.
On issues of interstate relations, each individual nation agrees to refrain from harmful actions against the other nations on the condition that the other nations agree to refrain from the same actions against the country in question. It is, of course, nothing more than the Golden Rule put into the framework of international law.
In general, there is no global “sheriff” to enforce the treaty, and opponents of these treaties routinely argue that they are indeed unenforceable. Yet there is a reason why the foes of these treaties work so hard to prevent their ratification by the US Senate. They believe, and rightly, that if the United States actually ratifies an agreement, it is more likely to follow through on its implementation.
To break a treaty, after all, is to incur a global reputation as a deal breaker and to risk not just a bad reputation but also a coalition of countries pressing for a return to compliance. In some cases, including violations of the rules of international trade under the World Trade Organization (WTO), the treaty provides for specific enforcement terms.
Moreover, the US government is typically very happy, even insistent, that other countries are living up to the terms of international agreements. I’ve noted the US support for various ICC proceedings. Similarly, the US routinely relies on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Likewise, the United States had aimed to further many of the specific objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity while not being a signatory to the agreement.
The Republican Party objection to international law has three underpinnings. The first is a historical image, essentially a founding myth, of America as untethered in its fate from the rest of the world. This attitude is expressed in a draft trade policy agenda released by the Trump administration: “Ever since the United States won its independence, it has been a basic principle of our country that American citizens are subject only to laws and regulations made by the US government – not rulings made by foreign governments or international bodies. This principle remains true today. Accordingly, the Trump administration will aggressively defend American sovereignty over matters of trade policy.”
The second is an implicit belief that America’s security and economic interests – in the sea, or the environment, or armaments – can all be achieved largely through American actions alone rather than the sum of the actions of all of the world. According to this view, the US has little interest in what other countries are doing.
The third is an overarching faith in “US primacy,” the idea that the US can protect its interest through its power alone, without the need to rely on international rules and international law.
These beliefs are wrong. From the start of our nation’s history, but especially today, America’s prosperity and security depend on a body of international law developed over the course of centuries that help to govern international trade, intellectual property, global health, international financial flows, arms control, and nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, environmental protection, and other areas.
Without international law, today’s global economy could not function, nor could the world successfully fight newly emerging diseases, control cross-border criminal activities, or preserve the peace among the major powers.
The United States needs to care profoundly what other countries do. We need to care about nuclear nonproliferation, pollution control, climate change, the movements of terrorists, the laundering of illicit funds, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, tax administration, financial stability, and the countless other areas governed by treaties and other forms of international law. Without international treaty agreements on such issues, there are no reliable and practical ways to promote the peaceful and beneficial behavior of the world’s 193 nations.
Nor could US military power alone begin to accomplish this task in the absence of international law. At the apex of US power after World War II, when the United States constituted roughly 30 percent of global output, American leaders recognized the urgent need for a greatly expanded body of international law to guide an increasingly complex and interdependent world. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the US led the way in promoting UN-based treaty law.
Yet more recently, with America’s relative power diminishing, the Republican Senate has turned its back on this indispensable means of protecting America’s vital interests and security, not to mention well-being and peace.
Rumors are swirling that the Trump administration will further turn America’s back on global law; neglect or abandon the recent agreements on climate change; unilaterally redraw the rules on trade; slash US support for the United Nations; break free of longstanding arms agreements; and more. Time will tell. Yet if America indeed goes in this direction, not only will our national security be profoundly damaged, so too will America’s decline in global leadership be confirmed and accelerated.
If the United States continues to turn inward, China will be more than happy to take up the slack. This year at Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a stirring defense of globalization and international responsibility. “When encountering difficulties,” he said, “we should not complain about ourselves, blame others, lose confidence, or run away from responsibilities. We should join hands and rise to the challenge. History is created by the brave. Let us boost confidence, take actions and march arm-in-arm toward a bright future.”
February 28, 2017
Better World Campaign advises against proposed Cuts in U.S. Foreign Affairs Funding.
Better World Campaign President Peter Yeo issued the following statement today following reports that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget will propose significant cuts in foreign affairs funding, which could also impact U.S. support for the United Nations:
“Foreign affairs funding encompasses only 1 percent of the total federal budget, and yet the return on investment is vast for U.S. national security objectives.
“The proposed cuts outlined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget would bring foreign affairs funding to levels that pre-date the terrorist attacks of September 11 and threats from ISIS. Such reductions at a time of increased global challenges would severely jeopardize U.S. security, while reducing American leadership, influence, and strength. These funds also save millions of lives each year from preventable causes like malnutrition, malaria, and polio, while helping to address global threats such as violent extremism, pandemics, and climate change.
“Included in this account are U.S. funds for the United Nations, which amount to 0.1 percent of the federal budget. Working with our allies through the UN means that the U.S. can share the burden of solving global challenges. Although imperfect, no other organization has the reach and impact of the UN, from responding to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II to using diplomacy to prevent conflicts from breaking out, and supplying vaccines for 45 percent of the world’s children.
This viewpoint is shared by many; the Better World Campaign, along with 100 other organizations, sent a letter today to Congress urging continued U.S. engagement at the UN. The letter notes that Republicans and Democrats have long recognized the value of various UN activities, from peacekeeping to humanitarian response to development assistance.
“The U.S. will not achieve peace, security, and prosperity at home by withdrawing from the world. American interests are never served by going it alone. We encourage Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to speak out about the potential negative impacts such cuts in foreign affairs funding would have at home and abroad.”

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A new world of power: the source and scope of Civil Resistance
by Jack DuVall
President, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict
“Civil Resistance” is much more than protests, marches and civil disobedience. Those tactics are among hundreds that can form the repertoire of independent political strategies for the people of any nation to plan, so that together they can act to win their rights, obtain justice, stop corruption and other abuses of power, and establish or reform democracy.
The failure of many governments to enforce basic rights and make good on the promises of power-holders has, right across the world, impelled people to seek another means by which they may not only demand but also instigate the changes they desire.
Welcome to the first online, living collection of articles and commentaries on civil resistance, available to people everywhere. My colleagues and I were asked by openDemocracy to create this section of their excellent web portal, as a forum for ideas, discussion and learning about civil resistance, and we were delighted to do so.
We believe that civil resistance is the clearest present evidence of an emergent new form of political and social agency that is beginning to take its place alongside the mechanics of state power - electoral politics, parliamentary deliberation and executive action – as a means by which the people can organize and compel the redress of their grievances and the achievement of the public well-being of their societies.
The periodic or continual failure of governments – whether or not they espouse worthy beliefs – to enforce basic rights and make good on the promises of power-holders has, right across the world, impelled people to seek another means by which they may not only demand but also instigate the changes they desire.
The theme of this week’s articles is the scope and variety of this world of civil resistance. We’d like to begin to pull back the curtain on a new reality: that there are hundreds of active nonviolent movements and campaigns for rights and reform, and against abuses and oppression, and they are gaining new traction and growing in number -- to the point that there appears now to be no society in which civil resistance is not being used on any given day.
Direct evidence of the global expansion of civil resistance is seen in the variety of nonviolent conflicts represented by articles in the first week of this new openDemocracy section: ongoing, phased struggles for freedom and true democracy in Syria and Egypt for almost three years; a major resistance struggle against hydraulic fracking in Canada; a struggle in Mexico by an indigenous people to protect their sacred land from transnational mining companies; burgeoning resistance to unfair labor practices and the denial of rights in China; and nascent civic action in South Africa objecting to that state’s use of military forces elsewhere in Africa.
On our site in the weeks and months ahead, you’ll see articles on the ongoing use of civil resistance in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Iran, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Tibet, West Papua, Western Sahara, and Zimbabwe.
We’ll look at campaigns for systemic economic, political or environmental reform in established democratic states such as Brazil, Bulgaria, Greece, Nigeria, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the US.
Equally important are continuing campaigns for justice, minority rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and more than half the countries of Africa, and local campaigns for indigenous or sectional rights in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, and the Philippines.
Many of these movements and campaigns share common dynamic features as a form of political struggle.
They summon and mobilize the participation of ordinary people by expressing their yearning for profound change, and they weld that popular resilience to specific strategies of action.
They create new kinds of political space in societies, by organizing resistance in the arts, education, business and even sports.
They challenge the legitimacy of governments, power-holders or institutions which pretend to hold sway for good purposes but instead betray the public’s trust.
They disrupt the operations of rulers and institutions that refuse to listen and respond to their views and that try to intimidate or hold them down.
They raise the cost of autocracy, corruption and incompetence by distributing resistance throughout a society, overstretching and dividing the loyalty of security and military forces, and by organizing boycotts and other sanctions that target abusive power-holders and institutions.
To those concerned that these strategic uses of civil resistance may lead to “unrest” (the word the media use to describe any commotion in public, nonviolent or otherwise) or “instability” (the typical accusation of dictators against civil resistance), I pose this question: Why should the failure to honor and enforce people’s rights, stealing from the public treasury, arresting and torturing dissenters and journalists, or taking people’s land and property without due process, or any of the hundred other forms of aggression used by states and their clients to subdue citizens, be tolerated without response by those citizens?
And when established forms of political contention, such as elections or petitioning office-holders, are hollow and ineffective, why are those engaged in such a charade entitled to a form of “stability” which serves only their personal hold on power?
Nonviolent action cannot, by definition, threaten or harm the lives of anyone. Nonviolent resistance is, by definition, civil because it is action in the public arena, which has been understood for over 2,500 years in most civilized societies as public property or as held in common by the people.
Resistance is a form of public action that welcomes participation and is not privileged or exclusionary, much less belligerent. So civil resistance is as civil as the civil procedures of the law, civil unions between two people joined in matrimony, or any other function of civil society.
Find a speaker or writer who believes that civil resistance is less legitimate than an edict or directive of the state, and you will probably have found someone who speaks for those who exercise power, not for those on whose consent the legitimacy of that power must rest.
Civil resistance withdraws that consent, which is an exercise of civil freedom where freedom may not fully exist – as the brutal response to nonviolent resistance often demonstrates. In that way, civil resistance can do the work of democracy before democracy is open for business.
Our site does not offer any partisan, proprietary or particular ideological view of civil resistance, nor would we define or limit the full scope of how it can be used. That’s up to the people who decide to learn, apply and study it. The work of this section will be a common forum of thinking about this extraordinary new force in human affairs.
Between 1970 and 2005, a total of 67 states became democratic, and in 50 of them, the primary political force driving transitions was a nonviolent movement or coalition using the tactics of civil resistance as explained in this study. This is history that has already been logged. What lies ahead is a forest of struggles and a geography of civil resistance that is changing the face of the world.
We began our launch week of the Civil Resistance section on openDemocracy with the first part of a two-part article that analyses the two distinct phases of the Syrian resistance struggle. Written by Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, a Syrian educator and activist, Part I focuses on the almost year-long nonviolent resistance to the Assad regime in 2011-2012, springing from ordinary Syrians in manifold places throughout the country. The beginnings of a people’s democratic movement was displaced by an armed rebellion aided by external governments and eventually foreign jihadist fighters from the region and elsewhere. This was facilitated by a series of mistaken beliefs about violent resistance, which the authors explored in Part II of the article.
Also appearing is a ground-breaking new article by Howard Barrell of Cardiff University entitled “Civil Resistance: A Space Oddity,” which examines a vital dimension of all nonviolent movements: how activists have ingeniously exploited the political space they create, which in turn can foster yet new latitude for resistance, “in a kind of force multiplier effect”.
A nonviolent conflict is fully understandable only from a strategic perspective, and this article takes you into the boiler room of that kind of analysis.
Then Michael Caster provides an overview, describing the scope and types of nonviolent action on behalf of citizen grievances occurring in China. Except for persistent and unbowed political dissidents whose cases manage to achieve national attention, and who are generally dealt with harshly, most actions that might otherwise be classifiable as civil resistance stem from anger about unfair labor and housing practices or suppression of free speech. But its potential impact has to be respected, or the Chinese state wouldn''t be spending the equivalent of $124 billion a year on internal security.
The second of the two-part series on the Syrian resistance, by Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf examined the false beliefs that typically prod impatient, combative opponents of a regime to take up arms - if they don''t understand the comparative effectiveness of nonviolent struggle. The last two and one-half years of the conflict in Syria are, tragically, an example of what can happen when these beliefs become the default basis of revolution. As Maciej and Mohja say, this wasn''t inevitable. The choice of how to fight in great people''s causes in the twentieth century was too often made without knowledge of how civil resistance works.
The third day of our inaugural week for the new Civil Resistance section of openDemocracy took us to the continent of Africa, where two societies are undergoing significant historical challenges: Egypt and South Africa. The choices that the Egyptian and South African people make – through their civic action and civil resistance, or their acquiescence to today’s power-holders – will determine whether sustainable democracy materializes in Egypt and whether South Africa can become a truly post-violent and just society.
In Egypt, revolutionary activist and political thinker Sherif Joseph Rizk relives the past two years of tumultuous events, sorting out the combustion on the streets from its political meaning and the enduring popular demand for fundamental change. Civil resistance has provided the political force for two inflection points in this process, in 2011 and 2013, but the present reconsolidation of control by the army does not preclude further change driven by the people.
On South Africa, longtime scholar and activist Matt Meyer surveys today’s campaigns for justice and peace in the society, notes the ongoing involvement of veterans from the anti-apartheid struggle, and examines the possibility for a peace movement that can deal with "South Africa’s new military establishment" whose activities appear to exceed the security needs of South Africans. He forecasts “great protests” alongside conventional politics.
Two new articles are featured from North America. They offered a tactile and strategic look at struggles opposing external corporate development of local resources, assisted by government but opposed by a substantial part of the local population. First, Lilian Palma tells the story of the Wixáritari, an indigenous people who are nonviolently defending their sacred land from the plan of the Mexican government and a Canadian mining company to develop mines within 70 percent of this hallowed ground. Reminiscent of Gandhi’s approach to self-organization, the resistance of the Wixáritari has aroused public support in Mexico. “Wirikuta is not for sale,” their signs say at protests, in reference to their land. Legal action has been successful so far in blocking actual mining, but the struggle continues.
Second, activist and trainer Philippe Duhamel provides a comprehensive look in two parts at a recent successful campaign in Canada in which he was involved, to block the drilling of 20,000 shale gas wells along the St. Lawrence River, between Montreal and Quebec City. With classic use of nonviolent action aimed at raising the economic and political cost of this project, the campaign staged a 700-kilometer long march to arouse local concern about the fracking, and successfully pressured the government to declare a moratorium on further steps to develop the wells. It may indeed be a model for action against fracking elsewhere, and its strategic and tactical lessons deserve a close look.
On Friday, our attention focused on Syria and Mexico, both involving women engaging in nonviolent action on behalf of their own rights or the rights of those with whom they work. First, Bahraini journalist Nada Alwadi reviews the stories of several Syrian women involved in civil resistance since 2011. Many societies are still surprised when movements for rights and democracy arise from women self-organizing and engaging in creative resistance: that can make their participation even more effective.
One Syrian activist said that “in the beginning of the uprising, I used to drive through the police checkpoints with my western outfit and short skirt and they never suspected me. They were under the impression that the only supporters for this movement were the Islamists.”
In the second article, Alice Driver explains the motivation of Mexican teachers in organizing a series of massive demonstrations and encampments in Mexico City in August and September of this year, to challenge the plans of the country’s president to impose sweeping, controversial reforms on the educational system. Civil resistance is increasingly being deployed in the mature democracies, when governments act arbitrarily or without listening to communities and sections of the country affected by such policies – and this article offers a case in point. One participant said they wanted to “defend public education, and not only for our rights as teachers, but also to defend the children of this country”."
* Access the Civil Resistance feature page via the link below.

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