Treaty Research: Categories & Sources

Assuming you have determined that there is probably a treaty in force that affects your subject matter, you can categorize treaty research goals into four broad categories:

1. Locating the Text of a Treaty

a. Types of Treaties and Treaty Sources Generally

As noted above, treaties may be classified as either multilaterals or bilaterals. Treaties made between two parties are called bilateral treaties. When more than two parties are involved, they are called multilateral treaties. Treaties are often published serially in "official" publications. Treaties are also found in "collections" or compilations of both treaties currently in force, and those no longer in force, i.e., retrospective. Treaties may be published both pre- and post-ratification. Various treaty indexes also exist.

b. United States a Party to the Treaty

Treaties to which the United States is a party are available in a variety of sources, official and unofficial, both multilaterals and bilaterals. U.S. treaties are published both pre- and post-ratification. The major sources of U.S. treaty information are discussed in the section III. below.

The U.S. Department of State, Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs, 2201 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20520, maintains all official documents pertaining to U.S. treaty making. This office may be contacted as a last resort if one is otherwise unable to locate the text of a treaty to which the U.S. is a party.

c. United States Not Necessarily a Party to the Treaty

Several collections and indexes exist that identify treaties to which the United States may or may not be a party, both multilaterals and bilaterals. These sources are discussed in section III. below.

d. Regional, National and Topical Collections

Finally, please be aware that there are many specialized treaty collections. These collections can sometimes provide the text of an otherwise elusive treaty. Please consult the card catalog for specific titles.

2. Determining if a Treaty is in Force and with what Reservations

Typically, treaties "enter into force" or become binding when a specified number of signatories have ratified it. Documentation of a party’s ratification process is generally available from the governments involved. As noted above, in the United States, the Office of Treaty Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Legal Advisor, maintains all official documents pertaining to U.S. treaty making. In the case of multilateral treaties, ratification documents are generally available from the United Nations or other intergovernmental organizations that serve as treaty depositories.

3. Interpreting the Text of a Treaty

You may be called upon to locate a treaty’s legislative history, determine how it has been applied by the executive and judicial branches, and/or find analysis by international law scholars, in order to determine how the text of a treaty has been interpreted. In researching the legislative history of a treaty, an extensive search of the documentation of the governmental agencies of each participating party is required. Proceedings of the conference that led to the conclusion of the treaty, as well as documents of international organizations must be consulted. It is also possible to locate published decisions of courts and agencies that have been called upon to apply treaties. Finally, periodical articles and treatises can be checked to obtain scholarly analysis and interpretations. Several sources are detailed below in section III.

4. Verifying and Updating Current Status

As with any primary source, the current status of a treaty must be verified. For U.S. treaties see:

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