International law: Mightier than the words

THE younger George Bush, a Republican, negotiated the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But when it came before the American Senate last year 38 Republicans blocked it. Now the treaty is up for consideration again; its prospects are uncertain. If it passes, it will only be with “reservations”: clauses that qualify how the treaty will impinge on American law. Like other human-rights treaties that America has ratified, it will be “non-self-executing”, meaning that separate laws are needed to give it effect. Conservative waverers may demand more sops, such as protection for parents who teach their disabled children at home.America is not the only country that says “Yes, but” to treaties. A third of the countries that ratified UN conventions on the rights of women, children and racial minorities carved out areas where the treaties would not apply, according to a study by Beth Simmons, a scholar of international affairs at Harvard University. In 2002 more than half the 147 adopters of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had caveats. The UN considers 36 treaties to be “close to universal” (meaning that more than 80% of countries have ratified them); in more than half the cases some ratifiers reserve the right not to apply them in full.In theory, reservations are allowed only if they are compatible with the treaty’s objective. Often they…

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