Eric Posner on Human Rights Treaties

This month, the Senate by a vote of 61-38 failed to amass the two-thirds majority needed to approve the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. The treaty’s supporters, lamenting America’s broader reluctance to join international human rights treaties, snorted at the vote and lampooned the antediluvian (but not prelapsarian) Republicans who shot the convention down. And it’s true that there are about a dozen human rights treaties, the vast majority of countries have ratified them, and the United States, frequently, has not. And rightly so. These treaties are little more than a collective back-scratching exercise involving many of the world’s most unsavory nations: The United States does well to keep its distance.

To understand why the United States is an outlier, one must begin with America’s unusual voting rules for approving treaties. Virtually no other country requires two-thirds approval from the legislature. Our system enables interest groups to block treaties by stiffening the spines of a few senators already temperamentally submerged in the isolationist right.

Supporters of the treaty argue that the disabilities treaty doesn’t actually obligate the United States to do anything that is not already incorporated in U.S. law. (Most of the other human rights treaties do not either.) Moreover, the globalists continue, treaties like this one are a free lunch. While not obligating the United States to compromise its values or interests, they do obligate other countries—including the authoritarian countries that routinely ratify these treaties—to improve their treatment of their people. Why would the United States object to such a good deal?