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Treaty Research Guide: Introduction

Treaty Basics

Treaties are a significant source of international law (i.e. law between states), and nations have crafted treaties to govern their relationships with one another for centuries.  Researchers often learn of treaties that may be relevant to their topic via secondary sources, and if you are not sure whether there are treaties relevant to you research, it is worth locating books, articles, and reputable web resources discussing your topic to first identify relevant agreements. 

Locating treaty text

Once you have identified relevant treaties, locating the text of those treaties may be relatively easy.  Most current multilateral treaties (agreements between more than two state parties) are deposited with international organizations who provide their text and status information on the web.  Locating bilateral treaties (agreements between two state parties) can be more challenging.  Bilateral treaties to which the U.S. is a party may be published in official U.S. treaty publications (see Sources for further information), but locating bilateral treaties between other nations may require searching foreign legal materials, resources with global coverage such as the United Nations Treaty Series, commercial databases, and beyond.

Beyond the text:

Researchers should understand that once they have located the text of their relevant treaty, their work may not yet be complete.   

  • Reservations, understandings, and declarations:  For multilateral treaties, states may agree to sign a treaty, but subject to certain reservations, understandings, and/or declarations ("RUDs").  RUDs can alter the scope and effect of a treaty in a particular state in minor or significant ways.  Researchers should locate RUDs lodged by their state parties of interest.  These are typically published by the depositary (the entity charged with administering that agreement) of the treaty, and are often available on the web.
  • Ratification: Though state negotiators may sign an agreement, state parties must typically then ratify the treaty to legally bind their state to the agreement per international law.  States each have their own ratification process.  In the U.S., treaties are submitted to the Senate and ratified if 2/3 of the chamber votes to do so.
  • Domestic implementing measures: Signatory nations may opt to, or be required to, promulgate domestic measures implementing the treaty.  Researchers may need to locate content such as domestic legislation to understand how a treaty operates in a particular state. 
  • Self-executing nature:  Some treaties are enforceable without further domestic measures, while others are considered "non-self-executing" and require legislative or other domestic legal action.
  • Dates of entry into force:  Agreements do not necessarily enter into force upon signature.  Parties may agree to a particular date of entry into force, and dates of entry into force may differ between parties depending on their ratification processes.
  • Modifications: Even when nations have completed all of the above treaty- making efforts, they may later modify their earlier agreement.  Modifications are often published as subsequent agreements (ex. "protocols")

See the Treaty Vocabulary section of this guide for resources offering additional terminology with which you should familiarize yourself.

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Emily McCutcheon