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Reading Between the Lines

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Message Ken Sanders
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While reading through the latest issue of Harper's Magazine, I came across excerpts from the more than 750 editorial changes proposed by Ambassador John Bolton, on behalf of the United States, to a draft of the Outcome Document on United Nations Reform. The purpose of the Outcome Document was to delineate the various areas of the UN that Member States, particularly the US, hoped to change.

The redactions and additions proposed (demanded?) by the US were startling in their implications. Based on the proposed changes, it would appear that the US wants to be able to target and deliberately kill civilians, encourage all but the worst forms of child labor, and make sure that no one does anything to meaningfully address nuclear proliferation, among other things.

In one curious revision, the US insisted that "the targeting and deliberate killing" of "civilians and non-combatants" is without justification or legitimacy, but only when committed "by terrorists." Why would the US insist on such "clarifying" language? Is the US of the opinion that the targeting and deliberate killing of civilians and non-combatants is justified and legitimate if such acts are committed by non-terrorists? Does the US wish to reserve the "right" to target and deliberately kill civilians and non-combatants? Does it wish to reserve that "right" for, say, Israel?

Similarly, the US revised the Outcome Document to eliminate "a legal definition of terrorist acts" from a comprehensive convention on international terrorism. According to Ambassador Bolton, the US prefers "a non-exclusive list of certain actions which would amount to terrorist acts." In other words, like its ability to arbitrarily pick and choose when it is bound by international laws and treaties, the US wants discretion to label "terrorist acts" as it sees fit. This, of course, raises the question, what acts does the US commit that it fears could be included within a legal definition of terrorist acts? What acts do its allies and proxies (i.e., Israel or Uzbekistan) commit?

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On the issue of economic development, the US sought to prevent the UN from eliminating all child labor. Instead, it changed the document's wording so that only "the worst forms of child labor" were eliminated. How exactly does one differentiate between "good" and "bad," much less "bad" and "worst" kinds of child labor? Would it be the "worst" form of child labor to force anyone six and under to work in mines or factories, but only "bad" to slave-drive anyone seven and over? Would a fourteen hour work day be the "worst," while a twelve hour day would be merely "bad"? Would a sweatshop staffed with children be considered the "worst" form of child labor only if it were not owned, operated, or hired by a US-based corporation? Would it only be the "worst" form of child labor if the children were white, as opposed to black or brown?

Regarding nuclear weapons and non-proliferation, despite all of its high-minded proclamations about ridding the world of the threat of such weapons, the US insisted that language limiting the development of nuclear weapons be deleted. For example, the US eliminated the UN's resolution to "[m]aintain a moratorium on nuclear test explosions pending the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." The US didn't stop there. It also deleted the "call upon all States to sign and ratify the Treaty." The Bush administration has, of course, refused to submit the Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification and has made it perfectly clear that the US fully intends to resume and pursue nuclear testing.

In a fit of speciousness, Ambassador Bolton explained that the UN improperly "emphasizes disarmament, when the true threat to international security stems from proliferation." Don't proliferation and disarmament go hand in hand? Would it not be necessary and beneficial to the goal of non-proliferation to simultaneously require disarmament? For instance, how exactly is international security enhanced by allowing a handful of nations (the US, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, etc.) to retain their nuclear weapons? How so, particularly when countries like Russia and Pakistan, whether negligently or deliberately, disseminate and distribute (a.k.a., proliferate) their nuclear weapons technology and material? How so, when such nuclear powers and sworn enemies as India and Pakistan frequently teeter on the brink of war? How so, when the one nation to have ever employed nuclear weapons also happens to have adopted a policy of preemptive war and has expressly reserved the "right" to use nuclear weapons as part of that policy?

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Furthermore, does not the Test Ban Treaty directly and specifically address the issue of proliferation by banning the testing, and therefore development, of new nuclear weapons? Even if only those nations that currently possess nuclear weapons are permitted to test and develop new and "better" weapons, wouldn't that inevitably result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons? As more and more nuclear weapons were developed and stockpiled, would not the chance that such a weapon could fall into the wrong hands become more and more likely? In short, isn't the US just tempting fate?

In a similar vein, the US insisted on the removal of language urging "parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to fully implement their respective obligations." In his letter accompanying the revisions, Ambassador Bolton explained that "[t]he U.S. did not and will not ... become a party to the Ottawa Convention, and that is why the U.S. cannot accept references to the Ottawa Convention." The US certainly has the right to refuse to become a party to the Convention. That being the case, why demand that States that are parties to the Convention not be urged to implement their obligations thereunder? Isn't it bad enough that the US retains the "right" to cause untold civilian casualties with anti-personnel mines? Why interfere with other States' agreement not to cause such casualties?

Finally, the US deleted language recommending the periodic review of all States' fulfillment of their human rights obligations under international law, "in particular under the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." This seems like a superfluous revision, inasmuch as the US consistently refuses to honor its obligations to the UN and submit reports on US violations of human rights. Nonetheless, according to Ambassador Bolton, the "UDHR is a non-binding document; therefore, as a legal matter, States have no obligations under it." Apparently, at least on the issue of human rights, the US does not believe it has any obligations under the UN Charter, either.

Regardless, while the UDHR may have originally been non-binding, its various provisions have been adopted by and are so respected by UN member States that the UDHR has become customary international law. Thus, Ambassador Bolton's opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, through the acceptance and implementation of UDHR provisions by member States, the majority of the UDHR is now law and is binding. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the UDHR's "moral authority" and has repeatedly cited to its provisions as legal authority.

Based upon the revisions insisted upon by the US, several things become clear. First, by saying it wishes to "reform" the UN, the US really intends to exempt itself from any legal or moral obligations the UN might seek to impose. Second, the US continues to hold itself above international law. Third, the US will seize upon any and every opportunity to denigrate, subvert, and obstruct international law. Fourth, and most significantly, the US does not care at all about who it harms, or what damage it causes in its arrogant pursuit of empire and hegemony. If its support and training of death squads, or its targeting and deliberate killing of civilians happen to qualify as terrorist acts, so what? If its zeal for corporate globalization entails all but the worst forms of child labor, big deal. If its grim determination to develop and possess more and "better" nuclear weapons actually threatens international security, who cares?

Reading between the lines, the US's message to the rest of the world is simple, direct, and clear: "f*ck you."


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Ken Sanders is a lawyer and writer in Tucson, Arizona. His publishing credits include Op Ed News, Z Magazine, Democratic Underground, Dissident Voice, and Common Dreams. More of his writing can be found on his weblog at (more...)
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