NGO Ratification Strategy

In 1984 a Human Rights Treaty Ratification Working Group was formed in Washington, DC with members from the legal, human rights, and religious communities. In 1997 Jeffery Huffines summarized the political strategy of this Working Group as follows:

  1. Lobby for ratification of at least one treaty during each Congress.
  2. Start with those treaties narrowest in scope and establish broad bipartisan support thereby building momentum for each subsequent treaty.
  3. Push for ratification with a minimum of limiting reservations, declarations and understandings.
  4. Work closely with allies in Congress and the Executive Branch to accomplish ratification and appeal to popular support when necessary.
  5. Support passage of implementation legislation when necessary.(59)

The first point reflects the advice given by allies in Congress, who counseled that the Senate would only consider ratification of one human rights treaty at a time. The second follows the logic of taking the easiest step first. The last three points seem self-evident. The NGO Working Group began its efforts during the Reagan administration and first lobbied on behalf of the Genocide Convention, which was ratified in 1988.

When Senator Jesse Helms insisted that a reservation on national sovereignty be attached to the Genocide Convention, most members of the Working Group opposed this. Nonetheless, they agreed that fighting the reservation was not worth the risk of undermining support for ratification. However, the Working Group argued successfully against attaching the same reservation to the Convention on Torture, partly because of the strong reaction to the reservation by other governments when it was attached to the Genocide Convention. A bipartisan effort changed the reservation to a less significant "proviso" that stated "no legislation or action is required that is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution." This proviso was sent to all the State parties, but was not included with the instrument of ratification deposited at the United Nations.(60)

There is other evidence that NGO interventions have been effective. In 1989, during the campaign on behalf of the Convention on Torture, the Legal Director of Amnesty International met with the Legal Advisor and staff of the State Department and also members of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department and argued successfully against a change in the legal definition of torture. NGOs have also coordinated letter-writing campaigns targeted at the Administration and Senators in support of ratification of a particular treaty.

Huffines notes that neither the Genocide Convention nor the Convention on Torture had much popular appeal when they were introduced into the Senate. These treaties, he asserts, "could not have been ratified without the support of key national organizations such as the American Bar Association, Amnesty International U.S.A., B'nai B'rith International, and others who lobbied on Capitol Hill and provided essential legal expertise."(61) He suggests that NGO support was similarly important in ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Huffines argues that ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights may be more difficult, because these treaties deal "more directly with state law than with just federal law."(62) It is sobering to note that substantial NGO support was mustered in support of Conventions protecting rights for women and for children, yet neither Convention was ratified by the U.S. Senate. Consistent with his thesis that NGO support is crucial in ratification battles, Huffines observes that NGO opposition to these particular Conventions was stronger than NGO support.

This analysis of NGO strategy raises three issues that deserve further reflection. First, what might be learned from the fight over ratification of treaties that were strongly supported but nonetheless defeated? For example, would an assessment of the opposition to the Convention on the Rights of the Child be instructive in considering how to mount a campaign in support of ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? Second, are there unique issues concerning support for U.S. ratification of the Covenant, because the American federal system leaves responsibility for public welfare primarily to the states? If so, how might a ratification strategy take these factors into account?

Third, because ratification struggles on behalf of two treaties with a more narrow scope have failed, might NGOs that have supported these treaties now collaborate to seek ratification of a treaty with a broader scope of rights? In other words, are there reasons why ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights might be achieved even though supporters failed in seeking ratification of the Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Rights of the Child? © Robert Traer 2016