Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama priorities: Round two

Not a bad start. In one week, Barack Obama has signed executive orders that are calculated, at long last, to ban torture by the U.S. government, close Guantanamo, and shut down the CIA's secret "black site" prisons around the world. Eric Holder, his nominee for Attorney General, has declared waterboarding to be torture, opening the way to possible (but unlikely) prosecutions of those officials in the Bush administration who authorized or approved its use.

Obama has also acted quickly on environmental issues. As of today, California will be allowed to develop more aggressive pollution-control standards for cars. He has also rescinded the Bush administration's notorious gag order on discussing abortion at overseas birth-control clinics that receive funding from the U.S. government. By freezing a Bush delisting order, Obama has restored the protection of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

To pursue his economic program, Obama will descend into the ninth circle of political hell by meeting with congressional Republicans tomorrow. Good luck with that, as the Democrats are reduced to courting Maine's two Senators to get the 60 votes they need to stop a filibuster.

So the agenda has moved along nicely in just 168 hours. (Still, you've got to wonder: will the Democrat's economic rescue package go down the tubes in the name of "bipartisanship?")

Now I doubt that the following list would be totally overlooked by the Obama administration, but these are four items also deserve high priority in any effort to reintegrate the U.S. into the global legal framework.

1. Join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague

The ICC has recruited 108 member nations since it was founded in 2002. The membership includes nearly all countries in western Europe and South America, Japan, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Bill Clinton signed the treaty at the end of his second term, but George W. Bush "ordered the signature withdrawn." By joining the ICC, the U.S. would send a strong message that it has again embraced the rule of law after an eight-year lapse. The Obama administration and current ICC members should strongly encourage China, India and Russia to join.

2. Sign the treaty banning antipersonnel mines

The treaty is formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction -- or more briefly, the Ottawa Treaty. The treaty was adopted following a vigorous campaign by Jody Williams, a U.S. citizen, that won the early support of the Canadian government. Williams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. There are 155 signatories to the treaty, including the ones mentioned above. But not the U.S., which claims that the heavily-mined DMZ in Korea should be exempted from its provisions. Meanwhile, South Korea, the supposed beneficiary of U.S. protection, states that it has produced no antipersonnel mines since 2000. Like the U.S., most current manufacturers of antipersonnel mines have refused to sign the Ottawa treaty.

3. Sign the convention banning cluster bombs

After the Convention on Cluster Munitions was approved in Dublin in May of 2008, it was quickly accepted by 107 nations. Last month, 97 of those nations went on to formally endorse the Convention in Oslo. The usual suspects have refused to participate, including the U.S., China, Russia, India and others who either manufacture cluster bombs or have large stockpiles. Unexploded cluster bombs can remain hazardous to civilians for many years.

4. Ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and its successor

The Kyoto agreement is, technically speaking, a Protocol to the U.N Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). While the U.S. is a signatory to the Protocol, it has never been ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the Senate. That leaves the U.S. among a handful of countries that have defied international opinion and the overwhelming weight of empirical data on climate change. On their own initiative, an impressive number of U.S. states and cities have adopted many of the Protocol's goals. Over the next couple years, the UNFCCC will be developing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that will likely include a "cap and trade" system for carbon emissions. While ratification of the Kyoto Protocol might be of little practical importance at this late date, the Obama administration could make up for lost time by playing a major role in developing the next set of goals for stabilizing the climate.

These four steps would require the approval of the U.S. Senate, and therefore the recruitment of a single Republican to overcome a filibuster, not to mention other obstructionist tactics that could (and will) be used. But it's not too early to start the process of gaining approval for these essential treaties.

TOP PHOTO: Barack Obama poses with one of his peers. (Wikimedia)

MIDDLE PHOTO: A U.S. M18A1 claymore antipersonnel mine, ready for deployment. (Wikimedia)

BOTTOM PHOTO: A USAF B-1 bomber dropping 30 CBU's (cluster bombs) (Wikimedia)

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