So What Are Your Top 5 Worst Treaties Ever?

by Duncan Hollis

Benjamin Soloway at Foreign Policy magazine thrilled me last week when he called to set up an interview for this story on the worst treaties ever.  Simply put, I love treaties and I love lists.  After all, a few years back I started a discussion on the most important treaties ever.  But, having given a lot of thought to my top 5, I was surprised to have never done a list of my bottom five.  So, I spent an entire day before talking to Ben, pestering my family (who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things treaty-related) with various candidates based on different ways of defining “worst” (worst treaty for humanity? the parties? one party in particular? for third parties? for the agreement’s stated goals?).  In the end, I’m glad to see all the treaties that I mentioned got onto his list. Some, sadly, didn’t make the cut –I’d wanted the Universal Rubber Agreement included because it’s a rare example of a treaty that so failed to perform its intended functions (stabilizing rubber as a commodity) that the parties went through the trouble of terminating it in lieu of just letting it fall into desuetude.

Interested readers should definitely read Ben’s article.  But I thought I’d open the comments section here to allow Opinio Juris readers to sound off on whether they agree with his list, or to offer their own suggestions.  What treaties would you add (or delete) if we’re talking about the worst treaties of all time?

9 Responses

  1. How about a list of treaties categorically broken, nullified or amended by the party with manifest superior bargaining power (more or less analogous to the situation defined by a ‘contract of adhesion’), such as those made by the U.S with various North American Indian tribes? Or a list of broken treaties with Indigenous Peoples generally (in light of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).…

  2. Perhaps the Treaty of Munich of 1938, which I think was considered afterwards as void because of coercion by Germany with use of force (nowadays Art. 52 VCLT). Another guess would be the unequal treaty regime in the China, where the so called Treaty Powers imposed several treaties on the Celestial Empire. Another act of imperialism in the 19th century was the Act of Berlin of 1885 (although I do not know, whether this was really a treaty in the end; it is reprinted in the 165 CTS 485). I would also assume that – from a Russian perspective – the Alaska Purchase (1868) afterwards may be was not considered as a really smart move.

  3. The 1948 Inter-American Convention on the granting of Political Rights to Women of the Organization of American States. This treaty gave women the right to vote but permitted ratifications such as that of Honduras which included a reservation stating that under their Constitution only men had the right to vote.

  4. Response…The Treaty of the Congress of Berlin (1878) which ensured that there would be a WWI, international law and treaties would become superflous; all the ethnic cleanings and genocides of the 20th century especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and the unblaanced world we have today

  5. Response…What about Versailles? Did it not lay the groundwork for WWII?

  6. It’s a fun and surprisingly difficult inquiry — I thought he did a good job with it. Personally, I was reluctant to name treaties in which some state just got less than it should have, in hindsight; it’s hard to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase as a great deal for the French, but it’s also hard to know how Napoleon could have held on securely while advancing other French interests. Everyone wants what they got *and* the geopolitical pony, too. So I was inclined to name agreements in which states unwisely sought and got too much (Versailles), or imposed terrible costs on third parties (General Act of the Berlin Conference, which threw in duplicity). For some categories, like commodities, population exchange/immigration, or esp. treaties with indigenous peoples, it’s hard to know where to start.

  7. The current, nearly universally ratified/acceded to international drugs conventions are in my list. The international legal framework for the unbelievably disastrous war on drugs. But, clearly, my worst might not be the same as someone else’s. Let’s see where TTIP goes. The worst could be yet to come.

  8. Worst according to what criteria? According to who lost by the signing of the treaties and to what extent, or whether the treaties fulfilled their stated goals or even backfired?

    I suspect that, for instance, the treaties between the USA and the Indians most certainly fulfilled the US’ goals but the natives got a very bad deal.

  9. What about accepting ICJ jurisdiction in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations? That did not turn out so well for the US.

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