Desert treaty ratified in dead of night

Published May 1, 2001

The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification was ratified by the U.S. Senate on October 18, 2000. But few Senators yet know it has been ratified. Senator Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) introduced a package of 34 treaties, all of which were ratified by a show of hands. No recorded vote was taken.

Initially, Thomas’ office told callers the senator had nothing to do with the ratification. On December 8, his office explained the senator just happened to be on the senate floor late in the afternoon on October 18 and was asked by the leadership to handle, procedurally, the package of treaties. Thomas has asked the Foreign Relations Committee to explain how, and why, the desertification treaty was included in the package.

At the November 2000 climate change talks in The Hague, Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said the treaty had not been ratified; he was corrected by a member of his staff. Phone calls to Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee) and other senators caught staffers off guard: Nobody knew how their boss voted on the ratification. And they could not know: There was no recorded vote.

What’s it do?

The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification was signed by the Clinton administration in 1994. It has been locked up in the Foreign Relations Committee since. Normally, treaties of such monumental importance are debated in committee and then forwarded to the Senate floor for further debate and disposition.

Not this time. The treaty appeared in a package of 34 treaties, most of them single-issue measures with single nations, dealing with stolen vehicles, criminals, and the like. The desertification treaty is far different.

The desertification measure is one of several environmental treaties that emerged from the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. One of those treaties, the Convention on Climate Change, was ratified in 1992. Another, the Convention on Biological Diversity, failed ratification in 1994. The Convention to Combat Desertification was skillfully maneuvered through the Senate to avoid the public reaction that had killed the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The desertification treaty claims jurisdiction over 70 percent of the Earth’s land area–virtually all of the land that is not covered by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Moreover, the new treaty creates a structure through which all other environmental treaties are supposed to be integrated under a common United Nations implementation regime. A companion treaty is now being developed by the U.N. Commission on Water for the 21st Century. The United Nations is creating, through international law and extensive bureaucracies, the structure it needs to control the use of all natural resources on Earth.

Regardless of whether it knew what it was doing, the U.S. Senate did in fact ratify the desertification treaty on October 18, 2000. On November 17, the Clinton administration delivered the ratification documents to the United Nations. The United States is now bound by an international law that claims the power to dictate land use over 70 percent of the Earth’s land.

The name of the treaty implies that it is concerned about deserts. In fact, however, it is concerned about all land use. In the name of combating desertification, the treaty seeks to prevent any land use its enforcers think may lead to desertification. Converting forests to pasture, for example, or pasture to row crops, or crop land to subdivisions–all are uses that may lead to desertification, according to literature produced by the United Nations.

Private property means nothing

No distinction is made between federal land and privately owned land when it comes to land use under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. The U.N. sees its role as the establishment of policy; it is up to the participating nations to implement that policy. The rash of land acquisition measures promoted by the Clinton administration and Congress were aimed at getting more land under federal ownership. Doing so makes it easier for the United States to comply with its international obligations under a variety of international treaties, the desertification treaty only the most recent among them.

The treaty itself provides (in Article 37) that no reservations can be included in its ratification. While the Resolution of Ratification adopted by the Senate contains several reservations, all of these will be ignored by the United Nations.

Withdrawal from the treaty cannot even begin until after three years of participation, and then another year must pass before withdrawal is recognized by the U.N.–assuming, of course, that there is some desire in the Senate to withdraw.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization and chairman of Sovereignty International.