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, hope 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
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?
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?
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
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
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 that submits 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
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: "Fuck you."
Ken Sanders is a lawyer and writer
in Tucson whose publishing credits include Op Ed News, Z
Magazine, Common Dreams, Democratic Underground,
Dissident Voice, and Political Affairs Magazine, among
others. All of his articles may be found at: