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Introduction to Treaties


Introduction to Treaties

James W. Hart, Senior Librarian Emeritus

The purpose of this guide is to help you find the texts of treaties and, in some cases, the list of the countries that have signed or accepted a treaty along with their reservations.  The guide is focused on collections of the treaties themselves.  It has separate sections for regional treaty collections and  secretariats.  This last point is often overlooked by those new to treaties.  But nearly all multilateral treaties need an organization to act as an independent administrator of the myriad of things that need to be done behind the scenes to support the functioning of the treaty.

Treaties may have any of a number of various titles such as convention, agreement, pact, protocol, or covenant.  But they are all the same; those terms do not indicate different types of treaties.  A treaty is an agreement between two (bilateral) or more (multilateral) nations.  The definition and rules on treaties are in the 1969 Vienna Treaty on the Law of Treaties (PDF) (VTLT).  Its says that treaty "...means an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation."  (VTLT, Article 2 (1)(a))

Certain terms are used to describe states that are at certain points in the treaty-making process.  The meaning of a negotiating state is obvious.  But a "'contracting State' means a State which has consented to be bound by the treaty, whether or not the treaty has entered into force; [(VTLT, Article 2 (1)(f))] [whereas] 'party' means a State which has consented to be bound by the treaty and for which the treaty is in force;..." (VTLT, Article 2 (1)(g))

Various nations have different ways of demonstrating their consent to be bound.  Some do so by signature alone.  Others require that a signature be confirmed by ratification such as our requirement of 2/3 approval by the Senate.  Some exchange instruments, i.e., treaties to be bound by another treaty.  Some do so by one step, accession.  But all of these mean the same thing: "the international act so named whereby a State establishes on the international plane its consent to be bound by a treaty;..."  (VTLT, Article 2 (1)(b))

Some treaties allow states to make reservations to any or only to certain provisions.  A treaty may also prohibit reservations to any or certain provisions.  A reservation is a "unilateral statement, however phrased or named, made by a State, when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving or acceding to a treaty, whereby it purports to exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that State." (VTLT, Article 2 (1)(d))  Reservations that are incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty are prohibited. The fact that two states are involved in a conflict that appears to be covered by a particular provision of a treaty may not be relevant to the conflict if one of the states has made a reservation to the provision.  It's important to check the list of reservations to make sure that a particular provision of a treaty applies to a particular state.

There is much more to learn about treaties, their formation, application, interpretation, and termination.  You can find this information in nearly any comprehensive general introduction to international law or in many specialized books.  You can find them in our catalog, UCLID.

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