Treaties and International Agreements

Who Can Do This

  • A senator
  • A member of the committee of jurisdiction

Difficulty: Difficult


Providing advice and consent to international human rights accords helps to ensure that the United States upholds internationally-agreed norms and standards, and helps build legitimacy for those norms and standards. Demanding human rights conditions (or requiring side agreements) to trade agreements and other multilateral instruments may occasion renegotiation of an agreement, prevent adoption of agreements that could undermine fundamental freedoms, and promote greater prioritization of human rights in future agreements.


Senate action on treaties includes briefings, hearings, mark-ups and votes on resolutions of ratification. The resolution of ratification, which is the legislative vehicle for providing Senate advice and consent, may contain reservations, declarations, or understandings that impose additional requirements on the administration before depositing the instruments of ratification. In cases where treaties are not self-executing, domestic implementing legislation (changes to U.S. law) may be required.

The legislative process for free trade agreements is set out in Section 151 of the Trade Act of 1974. Both chambers are involved in providing advice to the President prior to signing the agreement, as well as in provision of Trade Promotion Authority (previously known as “fast-track”) and in making the statutory changes necessary to comply with the agreement.

In addition, legislation can be enacted to restrict the eligibility of specific countries to receive U.S. trade benefits.

Good Practices

  • Consider the potential impact not only of ratifying a treaty, but of not ratifying it. No treaty is perfect, but sometimes the risks of rejecting it are greater than the risks of approving it.
  • Regardless of whether you support or oppose a treaty, hold hearings and open public debate about it. Those at the State Department who spend years negotiating treaties are demoralized when those treaties are never acted upon, and would benefit from knowing the nature and extent of congressional concerns.
  • Ask the administration to provide, for each session of Congress, a list of its treaty priorities and the status of all unratified agreements.

Instructive Examples

  1. Progress is Stalled. There is a long list of international human rights treaties that the United States has signed but failed to ratify, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  2. Progress is Possible. The most recent international human rights treaties to be ratified by the United States were the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which were approved by the Senate in 2002 on a bipartisan basis by a division (standing) vote.
  3. Linking Emigration to Trade. One of the most important human rights restrictions on trade is Section 402 of the Trade Act of 1974 (PL 93-618), known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which withholds eligibility for nondiscriminatory treatment of products from countries that deny their citizens the opportunity to emigrate freely. The Soviet bloc countries and China were the initial targets of this law, but with the passage of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (PL 112-208), only Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remain covered.