International treaties are a tricky business. They are essentially contracts between signatory nations. Problems emerge when nations withdraw from or don’t ratify these treaties in the first place. While some treaties do explicitly forbid, or simple do not provide a withdrawal process, we do come to one of the more troublesome points of international law: the nature of state sovereignty.
Treaties themselves are actually governed by a treaty of their own, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The Convention essentially outlines what a treaty is, and the basic rules for agreements between states. This includes sections that relate to the withdrawal of a treaty, more specifically, providing avenues for withdrawal if it is not explicitly provided for. Of course, some treaties are not meant to be withdrawn from, namely those that relate to rights. This doesn’t mean that a nation can’t choose to ignore the provisions of a treaty, essentially withdrawing support, if not their signature. This course of action however, may lead to widespread condemnation and sanctions placed on them (I’m looking at you North Korea).
One of the reasons a country might withdraw from a treaty is the changing of leadership. When looking at how a changing government can affect international agreements, we need to consider the context in which they occur. In democratic countries, new administrations are often elected due to dissatisfaction with the previous government, or with strong policy that appeals to the masses. They claim a mandate which, in the case of the recent emergence of far-right parties, may allow them to repeal certain treaties their nation is party to. For instance, the Republicans often find themselves on the sceptical side of climate change, and their winning both houses of Congress and the Presidency puts them in a position to claim such a mandate. This mandate the US President used to initiate executive action to wind back clean energy policy and withdraw support the previous administration had given to the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement was mostly non-binding, and acted more as a commitment to action rather than a requirement. With roughly 190 signatories to the Treaty, one expects commitment to effective climate policy aimed at reducing emissions, would be part of international norms. Withdrawing from this treaty could mean other states will be less likely to engage economically with the US while they are perceived to be uncommitted to a ‘clean’ economy. Unfortunately for the international community and climate activists, the US is still one of the most powerful and influential nations, so it is unlikely there will be any practical repercussions.
Another example is the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This decision came before the TPP had entered into force, as only one nation (Japan) of the 12 signatories had ratified the treaty. However, it has been widely accepted that the US’ withdrawal from the TPP has ended any chance of it being actualised. The TPP will be put into effect only if after 2 years, 6 signatories that totalled 85% of all original signatories’ GDP, have ratified the treaty. Due to the US’ economic power compared to other signatories it is unlikely this requirement will be met.
This poses questions about the nature of treaties themselves. It’s clear that a current government of a country signatory to an agreement would support it, but what of the succeeding government? If a new US administration deems itself to be not in support of a treaty, it is free to withdraw. So is a signature to a treaty applied upon the consent of the government of the day? The provisions in the Vienna Convention certainly imply that this is the case.
Government commitment to treaties ultimately relies on consent, which can be withdrawn. A new administration can easily throw off the cohesion of international agreements, especially when the actor is as powerful as the US. While in some jurisdictions the repeal of a treaty is as simple as an act of government, the consequences of treaty withdrawal are much less clear. Often, these consequences are damaging, as states can be in direct conflict with international norms and, in the US’ case, be extremely detrimental to individuals and the global environment.
Mike Anderson is a 2nd year Political Science and International Relations, and Employment Relations major. He is the current Politics Editor at Pelican Magazine, and likes to spend his time overanalysing politics.