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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014

Look Before the Devil Leaps on You: A Lesson for Uncle Sam

Monday 10 February 2014


“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” said Emerson. And sometimes fiction confirms certain facts. An interesting conversation between Sir Thomas More and Will Roper in Robert Bolts play A Man for All Seasons gives a cue on the outcome of not adhering to international treaties and multilateral institu-tions. Roper, a young zealous man, wants Sir Thomas More to arrest a wicked man, even though the man did not break any law. Sir Thomas More warns Roper of the dangers of such a view of bending laws and regulations to suit one’s own advantage, to which Roper replies that he would cut down every last law to arrest the wicked guy. Thomas More advised him not to go forward with the arrest disregarding all the laws, as there would not be any protection of law to save Roper if the wicked man (or the devil as he addresses him) turns against him. This excerpt from the fiction exhibits some invaluable lessons for Uncle Sam to pull up his socks and adhere to various international treaties and conventions which he expects the rest of the world to follow.

The recent episode of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat, who was earlier posted in the US and is said to have had diplomatic immunity then according to the Vienna Convention, has created hideous creases on India’s relationship with the US. Nevertheless, people have seen this as just ‘news’ and the not placed this in the proper ‘perspective’. This is not an isolated event as the US has been violating international laws and treaties as per their whims and fancies. According to Prof. David A Koplow, “The current situation continues to reflect the persistent asymmetry in international practice; the United States remains a party to the VCCR (Vienna Convention on Consular Relations). Article 36 of the VCCR stipulates that when a party arrests, imprisons, or detains a foreign citizen, it must inform him ‘without delay’ of his right to have his Consul notified of the adverse action and to communicate (with his home authorities) and derives the anticipated benefits when a US national is arrested abroad, yet repeatedly fails to reciprocate.”

Not only does the United States fail to reciprocate on international treaties, it has not yet ratified certain major international treaties which are important for the sustainable existence of mankind on this planet. One such significant treaty is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Control (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. The US does not hold any moral stand in advising other countries to cut on carbon emission, when it itself is one of the largest per capita emitter of carbon. The US Senate voted in 1999 to reject ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and it has been acting as a super-cop to force other countries to comply with the CTBT. A few years back, the US-Iran relations deteriorated to such a level that a war seemed imminent to enforce the CTBT and NPT.

In most of the cases whenever they have ratified, they have either gutted important provisions or haven’t complied with them altogether. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has been ratified by the US but with extensive limitations on how it could be applied in the US, essentially gutting its provisions. The US 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”. Moreover, the US has not adhered to the deadline given by the CWC (April 2012) and is almost set to exceed the single extension of five years allowed to destroy the existing stock of chemical weapons it has. But recently when there was a chemical attack in Syria, the United States quoted a violation of the CWC by Syria and was almost on the brink of an attack on Syria.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that was signed between the US and Russia back in 1972 to limit the ABM complexes by the two nations was in enforcement for three decades. But the US withdrew it in 2002 citing the threat of nuclear attacks by rogue states or terrorist groups. In the veil of such vague reasons, it created the American Missile Defence Agency by throwing the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the winds.

The US set a disastrous pattern and put the sovereignty of small countries in danger when in a 1984 International Court of Justice (ICJ) case filed by Nicaragua, the ICJ found that the US violated international law both by supporting the Contras in their insurrection against the Nicaraguan Government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbours. The US also prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation by vetoing the UN Security Council resolutions that called for enforcement of the ICJ’s judgment. And finally the US made the unprecedented move to “un-sign” the treaty establishing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A similar line is being drawn by China in a case with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea filed by the Philippines.

THERE exists a stark dichotomy between the rhetoric of the various US Administrations about the need for international law and the open violation of the most basic principles of international law, such as non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. As long as the US was a lone superpower, it was beneficial for it to treat international law and treaties subjugated to their national interest at the cost of others’ interest, and quite often the best thing for them was the total disregard of the said laws. The US extracted every bit of advantage for its self-proclaimed ‘super-cop’ status by not following the rules of the game. But as the world is becoming, essentially, multi-polar by the rise of China (which is poised to become the largest economy on this planet in terms of purchasing power parity), India and other developing countries, it is high time the US focuses on where to draw the line. It is in their interest now to adhere to international law and treaties so that they demonstrate peaceful co-existence or else multi-cold-war situations would be looming large. Symptoms of such situations have already emerged and questions have bee raised on the US behaviour of neglecting international treaties while simultaneously forcing the same on others. Hillary Clinton’s advice to China in 2011 regarding adherence to the international sea law was received back with a pungent question regarding the US stand on the same law to which it is not a party. It has been observed that China has rejected some of the same treaties that the US has declined to join, including the International Criminal Court Statute and the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Water-courses (the first law to establish rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes, and aquifers).

Even before the Devyani Khobragade instance, there were many incidents which demonstrated the arrogance of the US on a loose pretext of security laws and their implementation. Former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, UP Minister Azam Khan, former Indian ambassador to the US Meera Shankar were some notable victims of such humiliation. These incidents get largely eclipsed in comparison with the imperialistic behaviour and unilateralist approach of the US that has made various multilateral institutions, in force, effectively defunct. International law and treaties are indispensable tools for peaceful co-existence on this planet. In a rapidly growing multi-polar world, international law and treaties would come to the rescue of every country, whether small or big in terms of power and might, in a situation of confrontation, if and only if, it has respectfully adhered to them. India must view the Devyani Khobragade incident in the wider context and through various inter-national platforms (UN, G-20 etc.), and, with the support of peer countries, it must put pressure on the US to ratify and comply with international treaties that the US has been neglecting since long. By doing so, India would be playing a key role in the strengthening of multilateral institutions and thus enlarging its presence in international affairs. Instead of undermining the international treaties and law, it is high time the US fortifies the same and puts forward a standard for other countries to follow. The recent decision of the US Government to ratify the International Law of the Sea is a step in the right direction although it has subse-quently failed to do so.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi. Her e-mail ID is

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