Tag: treaties

Beyond the Open Skies Treaty

Guest post by Sandor Fabian is a PhD candidate at the University of Central Florida and instructor of record at the NATO Special Operations School. His research is in security studies with a focus on new concepts of conflict, U.S. foreign military aid, and counter hybrid warfare. Follow him at @SandorFabian2 and Doreen Horschig is a PhD candidate and teaching associate at the University of Central Florida. Her research is in nuclear security with a focus on public and elite opinion on nuclear weapons and norms of weapons of mass destruction. Follow her at @doreen__h

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Resistance is Not Futile.

A claim common among opponents of a treaty ban on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) is that treaties banning weapons don’t work – suggesting efforts to arrest the development of AWS are an exercise in futility. Now this claim has been picked up uncritically by the editors at Bloomberg, writing in the derisively titled, “No Really, How Do We Keep Robots From Destroying Humans?”:

“Bans on specific weapons systems — such as military airplanes or submarines — have almost never been effective in the past. Instead, legal prohibitions and ethical norms have arisen that effectively limit their use. So a more promising approach might be to adapt existing international law to govern autonomous technology — for instance, by requiring that such weapons, like all others, can’t be used indiscriminately or cause unnecessary suffering.”

borgThe editors point out a valid distinction between weapons that are banned outright versus more generic questions of how the use of a specific weapon may or may not be lawful (the principles of proportionality and distinction apply to the use of all weapons). But they also make a conceptual and a causal error, and in so doing woefully underestimate the political power of comprehensive treaty bans. Continue reading


Human Rights Treaties are Like Virginity Pledges, Part Deux

A little over a month ago, I wrote about the growing academic literature concerning human rights treaties and their lack of influence on human rights practices.  Based on my own experiences growing up in parts of the U.S. where it’s assumed we can “[Rebuild] Our Culture One Purity Ball at a Time,” I likened human rights treaties to virginity pledges, saying that “in most circumstances, these human rights “pledges” don’t work to improve human rights practices.   In some circumstances, they can actually lead to a worsening of governmental human rights practices.”  There is a brand-spankin-new forthcoming article at American Journal of Political Science by Yonatan Lupu of George Washington University that may indicate my previous conclusion was overstated: when fully accounting for state preferences in treaty commitments, Lupu does not find any evidence that treaties make things worse.  This is good news for human rights advocates everywhere and very important for human rights/treaty scholarship!  Lupu’s article definitely deserves your attention.

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Human Rights Treaties Are Like Virginity Pledges

In the category of “pop-culture-not-talked-about-by-normal-Ducks,” People magazine’s cover story last week was on ABC’s The Bachelor, Sean Lowe, and his pledge to remain a virgin re-virgin until his wedding night.  As someone who graduated high school in town of less than 1500 in Kansas, I think this type of pledge is pretty typical: many teens and young adults make a pledge, usually in front of an audience, to avoid sexual conduct until marriage.  And, not surprisingly, most teens do not keep their pledge.[1]  In fact, there are some studies that indicate that these virginity pledges are associated with riskier sexual behavior.

In many regards, the academic literature on UN human rights treaties sees their effectiveness as extremely similar to virginity pledges: in most circumstances, these human rights “pledges” don’t work to improve human rights practices.   In some circumstances, they can actually lead to a worsening of governmental human rights practices.  Why is this? Below, I outline 3 reasons why human rights treaties and virginity pledges don’t work.

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Worst. Treaty. Name. Ever.

I’m trying to finish up a paper on the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). But that of course it not the treaty’s full name. No – instead it is:

The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects

Has there ever been a treaty with a worse or more awkward name? Apparently there was some issue as to the name during negotiations on weapons in the 1970s. A Canadian Delegate, William J. Fenwick, suggested an alternate name/acronym: “Causes Unnecessary Suffering [or] Has Indiscriminate Effects” or CUSHIE. Another (American) delegate to the CCW talks notes that “His somewhat facetious recommendation did not meet with success.”

The ICTR Statute has probably one of the longest names I’ve ever seen:

Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Genocide and Other Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of Rwanda and Rwandan citizens responsible for genocide and other such violations committed in the territory of neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994

Long – but it doesn’t seem to quite get to the opacity of the full CCW name. If nothing else, the ICTR name is pretty specific.

Can readers suggest a treaty with a worse name? I’m not sure I can give prizes – but I’ll give you glory… via Twitter…. Amongst my 28 followers…


Human Rights Watch Takes Aim at Russia and Pot-Shots at the U.S. Over Cluster Munitions

Human Rights Watch is reporting evidence that Russia used cluster munitions in populated areas of Georgia, and has traced at least 11 civilian deaths to the weapons, which are considered indiscriminate under international law.

“Russian aircraft dropped RBK-250 cluster bombs, each containing 30 PTAB 2.5M submunitions, on the town of Ruisi in the Kareli district of Georgia on August 12, 2008. Three civilians were killed and five wounded in the attack. On the same day, a cluster strike in the center of the town of Gori killed at least eight civilians and injured dozens, Human Rights Watch said. Dutch journalist Stan Storimans was among the dead. Israeli journalist Zadok Yehezkeli was seriously wounded and evacuated to Israel for treatment after surgery in Tbilisi. An armored vehicle from the Reuters news agency was perforated with shrapnel from the attack.

What interests me about this press release is that HRW’s condemnation of Russia focuses not on the Geneva Conventions, but on the emerging ban on cluster munitions. This is a puzzle since Russia is in violation of the former but not the latter.

Let me explain:

Russia’s is not in violation of said Convention on Cluster Munitions, because

a) the treaty is not yet in force and won’t be until six months after the 30th nation ratifies it (it doesn’t officially open for signature until later this year) and

b) even if it were in force, Russia is not and does not intend to become a party to the treaty.

Nonetheless, Russia’s use of cluster munitions is in violation of the 1977 Additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which Russia is a party. These treaties prohibit indiscriminate force (that is, the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians); but more importantly, they prohibit the use of any weapons that by their nature cannot be used discriminately or controlled. It is the last part that pertains to cluster munitions and accounts for the increasing opprobrium attached to them: once launched, unexploded bomblets remain deadly even after deployment and, much like anti-personnel mines, pose an ongoing risk to civilians. This alone makes their use inconsistent with humanitairan law. This is not the same, though, as using them indiscriminately (cluster munitions can be deployed against military objectives) and it is not the same as using them to intentionally attack civilians.

Governments increasingly acknowledge that cluster munitions are indiscriminate because they can’t be controlled, and over 100 of them drafted the afore-mentioned treaty banning cluster munitions entirely in Dublin this year. Like other treaties, this only binds states who sign on. However, as with other weapons bans, human rights groups hope that the existence of the treaty itself will promote a more general norm against the use of these weapons that, irrespective of states’ legal obligations, will curtail their use in the future. The “stigmatizing” effects of multilateral treaties even on non-signatories is thought to be especially important since the United States, China and Israel have also refused to sign on to this new agreement but might conceivably be influenced by the fact that others have.

In short, HRW’s press release does not address Russia’s actual obligations under international law, but rather aims to promote an emerging norm against cluster munitions more generally. If they wanted to shame Russia, or to contribute to legal cases being developed against Russia in various international courts, they would refer to the Geneva Conventions (the term never appears in the press release).

Instead, this press release can be interpreted as a norm-building exercise – an effort to invoke the new treaty as an international norm binding all “civilized” countries. In so doing, HRW’s aim is as much to embarrass and persuade the United States, Georgia and other non-signatories as it is to condemn Russia.



After months of threats, Russia announced this morning that it is officially suspending its obligations under the Cold War-era Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. From a military point of view, this probably isn’t all that significant: I haven’t seen any one making a serious claim that the Russian Army has the genuine capacity to present a conventional threat NATO and the US.

From a diplomatic point of view, though, it represents a new low in the relationship between the US and Russia. Although you wouldn’t know it from the NY Times story, this decision seems to have been precipitated by an amendment added to the defense authorization bill currently wending its way through the Senate, which makes the missile defense system official US policy. The Kommersant article jumps the gun a bit–the vote on the amendment does not yet make it US law (it could get dropped in conference, though it seems unlikely)–but it is not a Good Thing.

I’m also very disappointed in the NYT’s coverage, which fails to make clear the mutual responsibility for the current state of affairs. I am not a Putin booster, but the relationship has also been grossly mishandled from the US side.

Update: A good discussion of the issues involved here.


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