Cowboy Diplomacy

By Infact Staff | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

(The following is a Feb. 12 report issued by Infact, an activist organization that claims its "well trained organizers" are leading a "grassroots challenge to unwarranted corporate influence.")

Cowboy Diplomacy

How the US undermines international environmental, human rights, disarmament and health agreements

Key Points from a New Infact Report


A recent trend in U.S. foreign policy is to play a major role in shaping treaties, then not sign or ratify them, or to sign then walk away from its obligations. Examples include the Kyoto Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Landmine Ban Treaty, and the verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The unilateral actions of the US are a threat to international law and cooperation, to the environment, to human rights and to public health and safety. The damage does not end with the U.S. image of engaging in cowboy diplomacy, and if it continues it will undermine U.S. effectiveness and ability to influence international negotiations productively.

The U.S. has a particular responsibility since many transnational corporations (TNCs) are U.S.-based, and are at the root of so many health, environmental and human rights problems. However, this report finds that the U.S. has increasingly isolated itself from the global community on issues of enormous humanitarian and environmental consequence.

When the majority of countries are united, opposition from the U.S. can be overcome. Appeasement does not work. Too often when the U.S. has succeeded in watering down treaties, they fail to ratify them anyway. It is far better to have a strong Convention without U.S. participation than a weak agreement with the same end result.

Environmental Treaties

In March 2001, the Bush administration announced that ratification of the Kyoto protocol would hurt the American economy and cost jobs. The administration also took the untenable position that until developing countries also make commitments to limit the production of greenhouse gasses, it would not submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for advice and consent, delaying indefinitely any possibility of ratification.

The U.S. thwarted consensus on a ban amendment to the Basel Convention, which was eventually passed only due to the unified leadership of the G-77 countries joined by Eastern Europe and European countries, which stood steadfast against the U.S. and silenced opposition in the European Union.

Human Rights Treaties

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding treaty to cover the full range of human rights - civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Much of the Convention was built around the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights; ironically, the U.S. and Somalia are the only countries that remain outside that Convention.

Disarmament Treaties

The U.S. reasons for squashing negotiations on the verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention are contradictory to its expressions of concern about the use of biological weapons, and to earlier positions during negotiations on the protocol. Alternatives put forward by the U.S. for voluntary measures would simply maintain the status quo, not improve existing international agreements.

The Landmine Ban Treaty is often lauded as one of the most successful human rights treaties, not only because of the effective work of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, but because of the negotiating process itself in which a core of two dozen small and medium countries drove the process including Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Germany.

More people have been killed by land mines than by nuclear and chemical weapons combined. The United States is in the minority by refusing to ratify the Landmine Ban Treaty.

Implications for the FTC

There is a clear pattern in recent history of the U.S. negotiating down to the lowest common denominator-then failing to support environmental, human rights and other treaties. This pattern has already begun to undermine trust that the U.S. enters negotiations in good faith, and leaves U.S. NGOs in the uncomfortable position of urging the rest of the world to move forward without expecting much in the way of our own government's participation.

The FCTC can still be effective without U.S. participation. The bulk of the impact of the tobacco epidemic in the future will be in developing countries, not the U.S.

The implications of the FCTC extend far beyond tobacco. While global mechanisms and institutions to govern trade have developed at a rapid pace, global measures to protect health, the environment and human rights lag far behind. The public health and NGO communities together with governments should demand that the FCTC set a worthy precedent by explicitly subordinating commercial interests to health concerns.

Now is the time for governments and NGOs to let the world know we will not tolerate an FCTC the tobacco trans-nationals can live with-and, if necessary, to fight the adoption of an FCTC that will do more harm than good.

Cowboy Diplomacy

Advocates for the Public Interest Speak Out on the US Role in International Agreements on the Environment, Human Rights, Disarmament and Health

Clifton Curtis of the World Wildlife Fund on the U.S. role in the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Treaty

"We faced the situation that the U.S. said they wanted to sign on [to the POPs treaty], and they felt POPs was a priority issue and action needed to be taken, but they sided with the chemical industry on just about everything the industry wanted."

Michelle Swenarchuk of the Canadian Environmental Law Association on the U.S. Role in the Bio-safety Protocol

"It often appeared to me that the original environmental protection purpose of the treaty had been entirely subordinated to Canadian and American trade interests. It was clear from the beginning that the U.S. could not sign the Bio-safety Protocol because the U.S. has not ratified the Biodiversity Convention. The U.S. role there was entirely to make it as weak as possible, and they had a strong impact in the fight to make trade agreements have primacy. Despite the fact that the U.S. couldn't sign the protocol, and it was clear it never would, they had the largest delegation there. They had people to cover every question. Biotech corporate advisors were also there, and were visibly consulted."

Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch on the US Role in the Convention on the Rights of the Child

"The U.S. tried to argue that we should cast the widest net to get the largest number of countries to sign the treaty. We argued that it was best to have the strongest standard and to take the time to get countries on board, because it's not about the lowest common denominator."

Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project on the US Role in the Biological Weapons Convention

U.S. "secrecy over its own work is partly the result of the biotechnology industry's increasing involvement in military and government contracts. Enormous profits are at stake in the hugely competitive genetics field."

New Zealand Barrister Duncan Currie on the US Approach to Multilateral Environmental Agreements

"The results, if this approach is not reversed, are likely to include an undermining of the rule of law, an unraveling of international consensus and reduced willingness by States to enter into, and conclude negotiations, with particular consequences for nonproliferation and climate change. The consequences may also be disadvantageous to the United States, in loss of legitimacy of leadership and loss of confidence in negotiating and implementing multilateral agreements."

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network on Lessons Learned from the US Role in the Basel Convention

"Until the U.S. has global policies that are akin to its domestic policies, it would be better not to have them in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control since the U.S. will then act as a whip driving all efforts to the lowest common global denominator."