Treaties and Domestic Law

March 28, 1952

Report Outline
Status of U.N. Treaties in United States
Objective of U.N. Covenants and Conventions
Disputed Legal Issues in Treaty Controversy
Proposals for Changes in the Treaty Power

Status of U.N. Treaties in United States

American adherence to various United Nations covenants and conventions, projected with the intent of gaining wider respect for basic rights and fundamental freedoms, is threatened by a rising constitutional controversy in the United States. An important body of opinion holds that the U.N. multilateral treaties, if ratified by this country, would have the paradoxical effect of endangering full preservation in the United States of the civil liberties whose observance they are designed to promote in other countries. That danger is envisioned primarily in connection with the proposed covenant on human rights and a proposed convention on freedom of information, but the same legal principles are involved in the question of American adherence to the already negotiated genocide convention.

Doubts About Effect of Covenants on Domestic Law

Both the human rights covenant and the freedom of information convention, while setting forth standards to be observed by the signatory states, “would permit departures from those standards under certain conditions. Because they would do so, and because the United States Constitution makes treaties the “supreme law of the land,” fear has arisen that acceptance of the U.N. instruments would enable the federal government to place restrictions on liberties of American citizens which it otherwise would have no power to impose. There are likewise apprehensions that the genocide convention, by reason of its supremacy as a treaty, would enhance federal powers at the expense of the states. Although it has been argued that the covenants and conventions would have no such effects on domestic law, particularly in view of the inclusion of provisions aimed specifically to safeguard against that eventuality, the concern not only persists but appears to have increased.

Advocacy of Clarifying Constitutional Amendment

Uncertainties as to the legal and other consequences of accepting the genocide convention, transmitted to the Senate by President Truman on June 16, 1949, have held the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee for nearly three years. Although a subcommittee recommended ratification with reservations in 1950, the full committee has taken no action. Meanwhile, growing attention to the constitutional questions posed by that convention and by the projected human rights covenant has influenced nearly two-thirds of the members of the Senate to unite in sponsoring a resolution for a constitutional amendment to clear up present ambiguities.

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Mar. 28, 1952  Treaties and Domestic Law
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