Friday, May 27, 2005

The Importance of Non-Binding International Agreements

Just as Congress attacks the U.S. for failings in its Container Security Initiative ("CSI"),, the leading post-Sept. 11 effort to tighten security checks on shipping into U.S. ports, the U.S. announces that it is trying to expand the CSI framework to encompass all of the members of the World Customs Organization. (Brazil signed on to the CSI just this week)The WCO is one of those really obscure international organizations that tries to create uniform standards for regulating ports throughout the world. It is obscure but highly influential among major trading states. Its latest effort can be found here.

Interestingly, this framework is not a treaty nor does it impose a formal international law obligation on its member states. Yet there will be international oversight of countries implementing this framework. So even if it is not an international obligation, there will be lots of attempts to make sure we comply as much as possible.

This might be considered an international administrative network involving agency-to-agency cooperation where the President, Congress, or even the State Department have not spoken. Instead, much of this is handled directly by the U.S. Customs and Border Security Agency (which is part of the Dept of Homeland Security I think, I've lost track...).

The CSI and the WCO rules are attempts to harmonize disparate international standards and practice. What is interesting, and perhaps puzzling, is why such standards are not formalized into some sort of hard international law instead of remaining a non-binding "framework." As I've pointed out in the past, some substantial part of the Bush Administration's approach to things (think of the efforts to regulation nuclear proliferation on the high seas and to reduce methane gases in the atmosphere) relies on such non-binding international agreements. It's not "law", and it won't win over many of its critics, but it seems to get the job done.


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