Ties that Never Bind: The Trouble with International Agreements

Ties that Never Bind: The Trouble with International Agreements

Izabela Zawartka discusses the role of international agreements and their non-binding nature.

10th December 2018 was an important day for the international community. It marked the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a landmark document affirming global responsibility for the protection and preservation of fundamental human entitlements. By recognising the importance of basic human rights, signatories of this document established the foundation for a greater commitment to humanitarian concerns worldwide.

Ideally, the creation and adoption of this document would have resulted in a global system dedicated to effective protection of human rights. Abuses, both by political and non-political actors, would cease to exist. Individuals would enjoy a greater degree of personal security and improved standards of living; in short, the world would be a safer, happier place.

Unfortunately, this vision remains a long way from our reality. Despite its codification in the UDHR, the global commitment to humanitarianism remains under question. News reports consistently highlight the atrocities humans commit against their fellow citizens, as states and their constituent members alike consistently violate the principles of the UDHR. Sometimes, it almost feels like the document never existed in the first place.

The problem with the UDHR, as with almost all international declarations, is that it remains non-legally binding. This document is, in fact, just a declaration; it does not contain a punishment apparatus to discipline offenders. Signatories of the agreement can easily violate its basic principles and, despite condemnation or scorn of fellow international actors, the chance of their being penalised is quite low. The international community’s strength to compel, in this case, is incredibly low. Those who wish to disregard human rights can and will do so.

The danger of ignoring the UDHR and other proceeding humanitarian agreements stretches far beyond the tragedy of human costs. Signatories’ disregard of these declarations threatens the integrity of a global system of cooperation. By deliberately and knowingly defying a commitment they promised to uphold, violating states signal to the rest of the world that agreements need not be adhered to. This is especially damaging when their actions go unpunished; lack of damaging consequences to deter future violations make them all the more likely to reoccur.

Why, then, do nations sign international agreements? The time put into negotiating, drafting and developing these declarations seems wasteful if they are ultimately powerless in guaranteeing adherence. The seventy years following the signing of the UDHR pose a strong case for the inefficacy of global cooperation, and we are forced to question whether or not these decades would have been different had the declaration never existed.

It would be incredibly pessimistic, and also incredibly unfair, to condemn all international agreements on these grounds. No problem, especially one as grave as that of the abuse of human rights, has a straightforward solution. Humans have wronged one another since the start of history; it would be unreasonable to expect an agreement to fully put an end to this undesirable behaviour, and even more unreasonable to claim that its inability to do so completely discredits its worth.

Recognising the need for a change is an important step on the road to progress. Explicitly identifying a problem, and subsequently offering a plan of action to begin tackling it, are critical starting points if we wish to make any change. Many are quick to discredit a plan if it does not offer a full and final solution. Yet, unless someone takes action in the first place, conditions will inexorably persist as they are. Action will almost always accomplish more than inaction.

Agreements undertaken by the international community are especially powerful, because of their scope. If a few countries work through an organisation like the United Nations, for example, they give broader access to their ideas. They assist in spreading change to citizens who lack the privilege of living in progressive or proactive nations. Thus, the shaping of international norms, such as increased awareness of humanitarian concerns, makes governments susceptible to greater pressures from their own citizens who are newly aware and freshly informed. Furthermore, the formation of transnational non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has expanded the reach of global initiatives. None of this would be possible without the spark an international agreement can provide.

Take the system of EU treaties as an example. Of the most ambitious, and consequently of the most prominent international undertakings, the efforts to integrate the European continent have led to numerous benefits for millions of its citizens. Beginning with increased economic cooperation with foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and through to the official establishment of a political union in 1993, the system has garnered member nations’ individual strength to make collective progress. Despite imperfections, the freedom of movement afforded to citizens, the development of environmental, health, and technological legislation, and many additional benefits are undoubtedly impressive. Moreover, following decades of intense turmoil, the achievement of a European peace can not be dismissed. If not a solution for all of the continent’s problems,  EU treaties are a step in the right direction.

In the same way, we should celebrate the events of December 10th. Rather than criticising the drawbacks of the UDHR and pointing out its apparent failures, we should work as a global community to elaborate on its foundation to make further progress in the area of human rights. Countries should continue to use the power of international organisations, especially the United Nations, in order to further resolution of important issues. Though total success will never be guaranteed, we should always welcome the slightest improvement; in international affairs, something is better than nothing.