Treaty Research: Preliminary Considerations

A. The Role of Treaties in International Law

International law consists of a body of rules governing the relations between nations and intergovernmental organizations. Its historical function was the preservation of peace. It is currently related to foreign policy, balance of power, and economic relationships. International law is traditionally divided into two branches – public and private. Public international law regulates the relations of states among themselves and with each other’s nationals. Private international law determines where and by whose law controversies involving more than one jurisdiction are to be resolved, as well as how foreign judgments are enforced (often called "conflict of law" in this country).

Treaties, conventions, covenants, pacts, accords, agreements, exchange of notes, understandings, protocols, etc., are formal agreements between nations. As such, they are a primary source and constitute the bulk of contemporary public international law. Treaties made between two parties are called bilateral treaties. When more than two parties are involved, they are called multilateral treaties. For a discussion of the power of treaties, basic rules of effectiveness and rules for interpretation, you may wish to read: C. Hynning, Treaty Law for the Private Practitioner, 23 U. Chi. L. Rev. 36 (1955-56). Though dated as a source of treaty information, the principles discussed remain valuable to the law student.

B. Genesis of Treaties

In the United States, the executive branch is responsible for the genesis and signing of treaty agreements; however the Senate must approve, by a two-thirds vote, any agreements reached by the executive. After Senate approval, the President ratifies -- consents to be bound by -- and proclaims all treaties.

C. Status of Treaties in the United States

Article VI of the U. S. Constitution provides that treaties have the same legal effect as federal statutes. Thus, treaties can supersede earlier statutes, and statutes can abrogate earlier treaties.

D. Dates that are Relevant to Treaties

For international law purposes, the effective date of a treaty is paramount. It is typically specified in modern treaties. If a treaty is silent as to effective date, it is generally effective on the date that a sufficient number of ratifications are exchanged by the parties. Sources often note several significant dates, however, which can make treaty research confusing, e.g., signing dates, Senate approval dates, ratification dates, proclamation dates, and ratification exchange dates.

E. The Process of Treaty Research

This guide presumes that you have already determined that there is likely to be a treaty in force dealing with your subject matter. In reality, you may need to do some background reading to make such a determination. Consulting secondary sources such as treatises and law review articles might be helpful. Treatises may be located by finding an index using the Library’s on-line catalog. Law Review articles on international law subject may be located by using the following resources:

In conducting the initial stages of your treaty research, it is also helpful to consult published research guides, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other similar reference works, as well as monographs. The following sources contain more detailed discussions and guidance on treaty research and practice:

The following Web sites also contain treaty research guides:

Finally, the following sources may be useful for discovering the new concepts, terminology and search terms that you are likely to encounter in print indexes and for conducting on-line, keyword searching:

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