The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was brought before the United Nations Security Council as a consequence of the Nazi massacres against Europe’s Jews, Gypsies and other “undesirables”. Its aim is to prevent and punish the targeted mass murder of identifiable groups, and requires that the perpetrators of Genocide perceive them as such.
The United States government under Harry Truman was an initial supporter of ratification, having submitted the treaty for Senate ratification on June 16, 1949, yet over the course of some forty years, repetitive Senate discussions never resulted in ratification. In his letter to the Senate in support of the Genocide Treaty, President Truman laid out what would become the standard arguments of the proponents of ratification – not the least of whom was Reagan himself - throughout subsequent decades, and is worth quoting in detail:
“The United States has taken in the United Nations in producing an effective international legal instrument outlawing the world-shocking crime of genocide...By giving its advice and consent to my ratification of this convention, which I urge, the United States will demonstrate [that it is] prepared to take effective action on its part to contribute to the establishment of principles of law and justice.”
For example, Senator William Proxmire later repeated the emphasis on justice and morality by arguing that “the Genocide Convention is a moral document. It is a call for a higher standard of human conduct.” In many ways, these principles of “law and justice” are two important themes of American history and rhetoric. In fact, law and order and Human Rights represent the two basic guiding principles of Ronald Reagan’s imagination throughout his life, albeit totally subsumed within an anti-communist and highly politicized ideological construction.
The opponents of ratification have also historically remained faithful to a core set of objections, expressing the primary concern that the Convention and other similar “unaccountable” international agreements would invariably circumvent the American Constitution, the “Supreme law of the land,” as envisaged by the Founding Fathers of the American republic. For example, Senator Bricker, writing in 1953, warns that if some treaties are seen as “undermining the constitutional rights of the American people,” then they will likely fail to receive Congressional assent. Likewise, Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina questioned some thirty years afterwards whether the Genocide Convention “infringes upon our sovereignty with regard to domestic matters” and then concludes in the affirmative and notes that while “Jews” are active supporters of the Convention, they stand most to lose given that “they have killed a lot of Arabs. Who knows what a World Court would do?”
The Reagan Inaugural
Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 set the tone for a return to a more hard-line anti-Communism that Carter had sought to reduce, some would argue unsuccessfully. His speech also made clear that Reagan also sought a return to a genuine Conservative or traditional agenda: high taxes, an intrusive government (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”), individual agency and worth, loyalty and the price of freedom all were themes that predominated. One issue that quickly came to embody many of these themes is whether the United States should finally ratify the Genocide Convention. The Reagan administration, on September 6, 1984, publicly announced that it was supporting ratification and pledged to follow through on this promise upon re-election in 1984.