The purpose of international agreements

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The purpose of international agreements.

International agreements are formal understandings or commitments between two or more countries. An agreement between two countries is called “bilateral,” while an agreement between several countries is “multilateral.” The countries bound by an international agreement are generally referred to as “States Parties.”

Under international law, a treaty is any legally binding agreement between states (countries). A treaty can be called a Convention, a Protocol, a Pact, an Accord, etc.; it is the content of the agreement, not its name, which makes it a treaty. Thus, the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention are both treaties even though neither has the word “treaty” in its name. Under U.S. law, a treaty is specifically a legally binding agreement between countries that requires ratification and the “advice and consent” of the Senate. All other agreements (treaties in the international sense) are called Executive Agreements, but are nonetheless legally binding for the U.S. under international law.

A treaty is negotiated by a group of countries, either through an organization set up for that specific purpose, or through an existing body such as the United Nations (UN) Council for Disarmament. The negotiation process may take several years, depending on the topic of the treaty and the number of countries participating. After negotiations are finished, the treaty is signed by representatives of the governments involved. The terms may require that the treaty be ratified as well as signed before it becomes legally binding. A government ratifies a treaty by depositing an instrument of ratification at a location specified in the treaty; the instrument of ratification is a document containing a formal confirmation that the government consents to the terms of the treaty. The ratification process varies according to the laws and Constitutions of each country. In the U.S., the President can ratify a treaty only after getting the “advice and consent” of two thirds of the Senate.

Unless a treaty contains provisions for further agreements or actions, only the treaty text is legally binding. Generally, an amendment to a treaty is only binding to the states that have ratified the amendment, and agreements reached at review conferences, summits, or meetings of the states parties are politically but not legally binding. An example of a treaty that does have provisions for further binding agreements is the UN Charter. By signing and ratifying the Charter, countries agreed to be legally bound by resolutions passed by UN bodies such as the General Assembly and the Security Council. Thus, UN resolutions are legally binding on UN Member States, and no signature or ratification is necessary.

In addition to treaties, there are other less formal international agreements. These include such efforts as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction​. Although the PSI has a “Statement of Interdiction Principles” and the G7 Global Partnership has several statements by G7 leaders, neither has a legally binding document that lays out specific obligations and that is signed or ratified by member countries.

The Geneva Protocol bans the use of biological weapons and toxic gasses in war and formed the basis for both the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions.

The BWC prohibits the development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of biological agents and toxins "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes," and weapons, equipment, and delivery vehicles "designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict .

UNSCR 1540 outlines obligations on all United Nations Member States to enforce effective measures against or acquisition of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons, their means of delivery or related materials by non-State actors. It also includes measures intended to prevent the proliferation of chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons.

The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, and transfer of chemical weapons, including some biological toxins.

The IHR (2005) are an international agreement between 194 States Parties and the World Health Organization to monitor, report on, and respond to any events that could pose a threat to international public health. The purpose of the IHR (2005) is to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are appropriate for and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. (The IHR (2005) are an international agreement between 194 States Parties and the World Health Organization to monitor, report on, and respond to any events that could pose a threat to international public health. The purpose of the IHR (2005) is to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are appropriate for and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

The IPPC is a treaty concerned with preventing the introduction and spread of pests to plants and plant products and currently has 177 government consignees. The IPPC has developed phytosanitary guidelines and serves as a reporting center as well as an information source. Seven regional phytosanitary organizations have been established under the umbrella of IPPC. The North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO), for example, consists of the US, Canada, and Mexico, who participate through APHIS, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and the Plant Health Directorate, respectively. The European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) is an intergovernmental organization, also under the IPPC, which is responsible for cooperation in plant protection among 50 countries in the European and Mediterranean region.

The PSI is a global effort that aims to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from States and non-State actors of proliferation concern. Launched on May 31, 2003, U.S. involvement in the PSI stems from the U.S. National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction issued in December 2002. (DOS website)

Since its launch by G-8 Leaders at the June 2002 Kananaskis G-8 Summit, the Global Partnership has worked to address nonproliferation, disarmament, counterterrorism, and nuclear safety issues through cooperative projects in such areas as destruction of chemical weapons; the dismantlement of decommissioned nuclear submarines; the security and disposition of fissile materials; and rechanneling employment of former weapons scientists to peaceful civilian endeavors.

The Australia Group (AG) is an informal forum of countries which, through the harmonization of export controls, aims to ensure that exports do not contribute to the development of chemical or biological weapons. Australia Group participants through their coordination on export controls assist the countries to fulfill their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention to the fullest extent possible.

At the end of World War I, the victorious Allies decided to reaffirm in the Versailles Treaty (1919) the prewar prohibition of the use of poisonous gases (see Introduction) and to forbid Germany to manufacture or import them. Similar provisions were included in the peace treaties with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

Drawing upon the language of these peace treaties, the United States -- at the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1922 -- took the initiative of introducing a similar provision into a treaty on submarines and noxious gases. The U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification of this treaty without a dissenting vote. It never entered into force, however, since French ratification was necessary, and France objected to the submarine provisions.

At the 1925 Geneva Conference for the Supervision of the International Traffic in Arms, the United States similarly took the initiative of seeking to prohibit the export of gases for use in war. At French suggestion it was decided to draw up a protocol on non-use of poisonous gases and at the suggestion of Poland the prohibition was extended to bacteriological weapons. Signed on June 17, 1925, the Geneva Protocol thus restated the prohibition previously laid down by the Versailles and Washington treaties and added a ban on bacteriological warfare.

Before World War II the protocol was ratified by many countries, including all the great powers except the United States and Japan. When they ratified or acceded to the protocol, some nations -- including the United Kingdom, France, and the USSR -- declared that it would cease to be binding on them if their enemies, or the allies of their enemies, failed to respect the prohibitions of the protocol. Although Italy was a party to the protocol, it used poison gas in the Ethiopian war. Nevertheless, the protocol was generally observed in World War II. Referring to reports that the Axis powers were considering the use of gas, President Roosevelt said on June 8, 1943:

Use of such weapons has been outlawed by the general opinion of civilized mankind.

This country has not used them, and I hope that we never will be compelled to use them. I state categorically that we shall under no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless they are first used by our enemies.

Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee favorably reported the protocol in 1926, there was strong lobbying against it, and the Senate never voted on it. After the war, President Truman withdrew it from the Senate, together with other inactive older treaties. Little attention was paid to the protocol for several years thereafter. During the Korean war the Communist side accused the United States of using bacteriological weapons in Korea, but at the same time they rejected American proposals for international investigation of their charges. In the Security Council, the Soviet Union introduced a draft resolution calling on all U.N. members to ratify the protocol. At that time the United States was not willing to agree to prohibit the use of any weapons of mass destruction unless they could be eliminated through a disarmament agreement with effective safeguards. On June 26, 1952, the Soviet resolution was rejected by a vote of 1 to 0, with 10 abstentions (including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France).

In 1966 the Communist countries strongly criticized the United States for using tear gas and chemical herbicides in Vietnam. In the General Assembly, Hungary charged that the use in war of these agents was prohibited by the Geneva Protocol and other provisions of international law. The United States denied that the protocol applied to nontoxic gases or chemical herbicides. Joined by Canada, Italy, and the United Kingdom, the United States introduced amendments to a Hungarian resolution that would have made the use of any chemical and bacteriological weapons an international crime. In its final form the resolution called for "strict observance by all states of the principles and objectives" of the protocol, condemned "all actions contrary to those objectives," and invited all states to accede to the protocol. During the debate the U.S. Representa-tive stated that it would be up to each country to decide whether or how to adhere to the protocol, "in the light of constitutional and other consider-ations."
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