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Bree Bang-Jensen Researches Ways Countries Exit International Treaties Against Slavery and Other Rights Abuses

Broken Chair, Geneva.
"Broken Chair" sculpture in front of the main entrance to the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The objective was to get the largest possible number of States to sign the Ottawa Treaty on landmines in December 1997.

January 17, 2019

Within international relations, there is substantial research on how new norms spread and how states decide to join treaties, but very little research on how norms die or decay.  This is an oversight, as norms are not always positive.  We can frame the fight against slavery or shift away from infanticide in terms of the emergence of anti-slavery or anti-infanticide norms, but that might prevent us from determining whether norm death is the result of gradual decay and reduced adherence or contestation.

To explore how norm death occurs, I became interested in a new International Labor Organization (ILO) process that allowed the ILO to propose that international treaties, or standards, be terminated because they were outdated.  Since 2015, ILO members have voted to terminate treaties involving duplicative standards, industries that no longer exist, and, most significantly for my research, treaties that involve regressive norms.  For instance, in the early 20th century, states agreed upon treaties that created a secondary labor market for indigenous workers engaged in forced labor in colonies, codifies penal sanctions for indigenous workers who breach their contracts, prohibited women from working at night or underground in mines, and created special protections for female workers with families. Although most of these treaties have been “shelved” and no longer open for signature since the 1980s, since 2015, the ILO has been convening members to vote on these outdated treaties each year. This September, ILO delegations will vote whether to terminate a treaty that bans women from participating in underground mining, along with other treaties.

Funds from the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown award allowed me to travel to Geneva to interview ILO staff about this new treaty abrogation process, and I was able to capture how the standards review group determines which standards to bring to a vote, as well as their goals in terminated outdated standards. We discussed the costs—in terms of complexity, compliance, and overall legitimacy—of continuing to have outdated standards on the books. I also learned about how broader changes in the international structure (for instance, the end of the Cold War) had led to this reform.  My interviews provided support for several hypotheses I had about patterns in state withdrawal from treaties, as well as the consequences of allowing outdated international law to survive. Several people I spoke to were concerned that US withdrawal from the Iran deal and the Paris accord, as well as the withdrawal of Burundi and the Philippines from the International Criminal Court, had made treaty termination a more politically charged process than in the past.

While in Geneva, I also I met with staff at several other international organizations to discuss their perceptions of treaty exit, and made contacts for future research.

In terms of next steps, I plan to speak with ILO delegates from member states by phone this fall, and ask how they decide to withdraw from treaties, or vote in favor of their termination.  I also will be following up on this year’s ILO meeting to find out whether delegates voted in favor of terminating the treaty that prohibits participation in underground mining. I hope that my research sheds some light on how norms die, how international organizations can manage this process, and the consequences of allowing regressive international law to remain on the books.