Hardly a week goes by that the United States declines to sign a world treaty on security or the global environment-or threatens to withdraw from one it has already signed.

Even worse is its record on international human rights. Despite lots of high-sounding rhetoric about a “human rights-based foreign policy,” the U.S. is no paragon when it comes to action. The U.S. routinely refuses to sign or ratify numerous human rights-related treaties and conventions, and at other times, actually violates internationally agreed upon human rights standards.

Consider the recent record:

  • Alone among its European and other Western allies, the U.S. continues to impose the death penalty. It even allows imposition of a death sentence against minors and those found to be mentally incompetent, in direct contravention of international human rights law.
  • The U.S. is responsible, by refusing to allow the UN to end the devastating economic sanctions, for killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and violating virtually all of the economic and social rights of Iraq’s civilian population.
  • The U.S. has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a distinction it shares only with Somalia. It opposed a key provision prohibiting child soldiers under the age of 18, because the Pentagon found it convenient to continue recruiting 17-year-olds for the U.S. military.
  • The U.S. spent years demanding international support for an International Criminal Court. But throughout the Rome negotiations aimed at creating the Court, U.S. diplomats worked to weaken the independence of the Court, and to insure that no future U.S. war criminal would ever be brought before the Court. Ultimately, while 120 countries cheered the birth of the Court that summer, the U.S. led the seven-nation rejection front (including China, Israel, Iraq, Libya) that refused to support the Court.
  • Washington stands alone in protecting Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian lands, and its continuing violations of human rights and international law, including illegal settlements, and tank and helicopter gunship attacks on refugee camps and other civilian targets.
  • The U.S. reluctantly signed but has refused to ratify the Convention on Economic and Social Rights. In conference after conference the U.S. has opposed declaring housing and food to be internationally recognized human rights in separate treaties, despite the explicit inclusion of such rights in the convention’s own language guaranteeing an adequate standard of living.
  • The U.S. has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Women, and has strongly opposed UN efforts to make women’s right to inherit property an internationally recognized human right.

As a result, there is a growing global dismay at what is widely perceived to be an escalating “go it alone” tendency in U.S. foreign policy, an approach that dismisses the significance of multilateralism, international law, and the United Nations.

For instance, just days before the UN votes, the Bush administration announced its intention to abandon the requirements of the Kyoto environmental treaty on climate change, and to unilaterally renounce the almost 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty that has been a linchpin of international strategic arms control since 1972. Coming after so many years of big U.S. talk but little U.S. accountability to multilateral decisionmaking, UN resolutions, and international treaties, its not surprising that European allies were furious. Many are now calling the U.S. a “rogue state.”

One example of “roguish” behavior toward the UN may have pushed several countries over the edge, from irritation to fury. That is the seemingly endless problem of unpaid U.S. dues. Washington’s arrears to the UN, including both peacekeeping and regular assessments, total over $1.3 billion. In a much praised “negotiated” settlement last year, the U.S. agreed to finally pay a portion of those overdue assessments (a little more than $530 million), if the UN accepted a long list of unilaterally imposed restrictions crafted largely by UN-bashing Senator Jesse Helms. And now, months later, despite the high-profile agreement, even that partial payment has never been sent. The U.S. remains the biggest deadbeat country in the UN.

And finally, it is not only U.S. failures and hypocrisy and double standards on human rights, not only U.S. rejection of multilateralism in favor of raw power that antagonizes U.S. friends, allies, and adversaries alike. It is the ugly arrogance with which Washington wields that power that leads to such animosity. One hopes that some here in Washington will take seriously the sobering lesson of what begins to happen to superpowers, even to empires, that overreach their legitimacy once too often.

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