One of the dangerous consequences of violating the Iran deal is a loss of credibility for the U.S., say critics of Donald Trump’s decision including former president Barack Obama. Iran and all other parties have respected the deal’s terms, they point out, making the U.S. look like an unreliable international partner.
Well, the U.S. is an unreliable international partner—and it has long been one, even before the current administration pulled out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris agreement on climate change, and threatened to end NAFTA. History is dotted with treaties that the U.S. has signed but not ratified, signed and then unsigned, and even refused to sign after pushing everyone else to sign.
Capriciousness about international treaties is an old U.S. tradition. It starts with the country’s very creation: hundreds of treaties signed with Native American tribes that were either broken, or not ratified. Today, the U.S. is one of the countries to have ratified the fewest number of international human rights treaties—of the 18 agreements passed by the UN, America has only ratified five.
Treaties between the U.S. and American Indian Nations (1722-1869)
According to the US national archives, 374 treaties (pdf, p.4) signed between the U.S. and Native American Tribes from 1772 to 1867 were ratified. Of these, many were not respected: Only one article of the Pickering Treaty, or Treaty of Canadaigua of 1794, for instance, has been observed. Many others (18 in California alone, signed during the Gold Rush) were not even ratified. These include Treaty K, or the California Treaty, which promised reservations to American Indians within the state.
Treaty of Versailles, 1919
President Woodrow Wilson was a promoter and negotiator of the treaty that ended World War I. The agreement was signed between the Allied Powers and Germany; commenting on the U.S.’s role in brokering the deal, Wilson famously said, “At last the world knows America as the savior of the world!”
However, the president encountered strong and growing opposition to the treaty in Congress, and the U.S. never ratified the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, the U.S. didn’t formally end its war against Germany and the former Austro-Hungarian empire until 1921.
International Labor Convention, 1949
The oldest treaty currently pending ratification in the Senate is an international recognition of the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize. The agreement was signed by 154 countries, including the U.S., and entered in full effect in 1950. However, the U.S. never ratified it (pdf).
Geneva Agreement, 1954
The Conference of Geneva in 1954 was called to put a final end to the Korean War and First Indochina War. The treaty was signed by Vietnam, France, China, the USSR, and the U.K. Although the U.S. participated in the conference and negotiations, it eventually refused to sign. However, it did agree to respect the ceasefire.
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966
Building onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICESCR expands the notion of basic rights beyond civil and political provisions. The agreement has been ratified by 166 countries. The U.S. has signed, but has not ratified, the covenant.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women (CEDAW), 1979
By signing CEDAW in 1980, the U.S. become one of 156 signatories of a landmark agreement to end gender discrimination. Shortly after signing, then-president Jimmy Carter submitted the agreement for ratification to the Senate. It’s still waiting.
The Law of the Sea, 1982
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was held in Jamaica between 1973 and 1982. It established a set of rules and responsibilities governing the way countries and international bodies act in international waters. For instance, UNCLOS details the requirements of search and rescue at sea. In 1994, the U.S. signed the agreement. However, it did not ratify it.
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989
The CRC is a landmark human rights document for several reasons. It’s the first defining agreement on the rights of children, and it incorporate a wide range of rights (education, health, justice) for minors. It achieved broad support very quickly, with near-unanimous ratification across the globe.
The U.S. signed the agreement in 1995. It is the only country that has not ratified it.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, 1996
Although the treaty banning nuclear testing was adopted by the UN Assembly General in 1996, and has been ratified by 166 countries, the agreement is not yet into effect due to eight key countries who have not yet ratified it. The U.S., which signed in 1996, is one of them—the others are China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Mine-Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty, 1997
The mine ban’s goal is to eliminate anti-person mines, prohibiting their production, stockpiling, or use. The U.S. is one of 33 states (including Russia, India, and China) that have signed but not ratified the treaty.
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998
The Rome treaty establishing an international criminal court was negotiated by 148 countries. Of them, 120 approved of the final draft in 1998 (pdf), seven opposed it, and 21 abstained from voting.
Bill Clinton signed the agreement in 2000 but delayed submitting it to the Senate for ratification, on the grounds that the U.S. needed to observe how the tribunal worked. Two years later, after the treaty had come into full effect and been ratified by 60 countries, George W. Bush informed the United Nations that the U.S. no longer intended to submit the agreement to the Senate for ratification at all.
Kyoto Protocol, 1997
Though the US signed the agreement limiting carbon emissions, it never intended to ratify it. The U.S. is one of just four UN member states that have not enforced the agreement, with Andorra, Canada, and South Sudan.
Paris Climate Accord, 2015
The Paris deal to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions was signed by 195 member states in 2015, and became effective the following year. President Trump withdrew from the agreement on June 1, 2017. However, the U.S. is still bound to follow the Paris deal’s requirements until 2020.
Several more international treaties are pending ratification from the US Senate, for a total of 45 between 1949 and 2017. The U.S. is also notably absent from signing prominent international treaties including the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention Against Torture, and on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.