/tree"tee/, n., pl. treaties.
1. a formal agreement between two or more states in reference to peace, alliance, commerce, or other international relations.
2. the formal document embodying such an international agreement.
3. any agreement or compact.
[1350-1400; ME trete < AF < L tractatus TRACTATE]

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Contract or other written instrument binding two or more states under international law.

The term is generally reserved for the more important international agreements, usually requiring, in addition to the signatures of authorized persons, ratification by the governments involved. A treaty may be bilateral or multilateral; it usually contains a preamble, an enumeration of the issues agreed on, and clauses that discuss its ratification procedures, lifespan, and terms for termination. Treaties may be political, commercial, constitutional, or administrative, or they may relate to criminal and civil justice or codify international law.
(as used in expressions)
Aix la Chapelle Treaty of
Amiens Treaty of
Pacific Security Treaty
Brest Litovsk Treaty of
Brétigny Treaty of
Bucharest Treaty of
Cambrai Treaty of
Campo Formio Treaty of
Carlowitz Treaty of
Cateau Cambrésis Treaty of
Chaumont Treaty of
Clayton Bulwer Treaty
Dover Treaty of
Edirne Treaty of
Treaty of Adrianople
Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty of
Hünkâr Iskelesi Treaty of
Jassy Treaty of
Küçük Kaynarca Treaty of
Lausanne Treaty of
London Treaty of
Nanjing Treaty of
Nerchinsk Treaty of
Neuilly Treaty of
Paris Treaty of
Portsmouth Treaty of
Pressburg Treaty of
Pyrenees Treaty of the
Rapallo Treaty of
Riga Treaty of
Saint Germain Treaty of
San Stefano Treaty of
Sèvres Treaty of
Tordesillas Treaty of
Trianon Treaty of
Venice Treaty of
Verdun Treaty of
Versailles Treaty of
Webster Ashburton Treaty
Middle East Treaty Organization
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Fort Stanwix Treaties of
Nijmegen Treaties of
Rastatt and Baden treaties of
Rome Treaties of
Tilsit Treaties of

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      a binding formal agreement, contract, or other written instrument that establishes obligations between two or more subjects of international law (primarily states (state) and international organizations (international organization)). The rules concerning treaties between states are contained in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), and those between states and international organizations appear in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties Between States and International Organizations or Between International Organizations (1986).

      The term treaty is used generically to describe a variety of instruments, including conventions, agreements, arrangements, protocols, covenants, charters, and acts. In the strict sense of the term, however, many such instruments are not treaties. The key distinguishing feature of a treaty is that it is binding. For example, whereas the United Nations (UN) Charter (1945) created a binding agreement and is thus a treaty, the Charter of Paris (1990), which established the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (Security and Co-operation in Europe, Organization for) (formerly the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe), is not a binding document as such and thus is not officially a treaty. Treaties are expected to be executed in good faith, in keeping with the principle of pacta sunt servanda (Latin: “agreements must be kept”), arguably the oldest principle of international law. Without this principle, which is explicitly mentioned in many agreements, treaties would be neither binding nor enforceable.

      A treaty is normally negotiated between plenipotentiaries provided by their respective governments with the “full power” to conclude a treaty within the scope of their instructions. A country's signature is often sufficient to manifest its intention to be bound by the treaty, especially in the case of bilateral treaties. In multilateral (general) treaties, however, a country's signature is normally subject to formal ratification by the government unless it has explicitly waived this right. Apart from such an express provision, the instrument does not become formally binding until ratifications have been exchanged. Multilateral treaties bind only those states that are parties to them and go into effect after a specified number of ratifications have been attained. After the time specified for states to sign the treaty has passed, states may become parties to the treaty through a process known as accession.

      The use of multilateral treaties increased dramatically during the 20th century (e.g., the 1919 Treaty of Versailles (Versailles, Treaty of) and the 1945 UN Charter). They have proved to be an effective way to establish new rules of international law—particularly where there is a need to respond quickly to changing circumstances or where the issue in question is unregulated. An example of the former kind of treaty is the Convention on the Law of the Sea (Sea, Law of the), which was signed in 1982 and came into force 12 years later. This comprehensive treaty, which took more than a decade to negotiate, specifies the status of the seas and the international seabed. Examples of the latter kind of treaty include a range of environmental treaties, such as the Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979) and the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985), as well as their succeeding protocols, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, both of which were adopted in 1992. In addition, human rights protections have been expanded tremendously through a series of international conventions and regional agreements, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of genocide (1948), the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

      Treaties do not need to follow any special form. A treaty often takes the form of a contract, but it may be a joint declaration or an exchange of notes (as in the case of the Rush-Bagot Agreement (Rush–Bagot Agreement) between the United States and Great Britain in 1817 for mutual disarmament on the Great Lakes). Important treaties, however, generally follow a fixed plan. The preamble provides the names and styles of the contracting parties and is a statement of the treaty's general objectives. It is usually followed by the articles containing the agreed-upon stipulations. If the treaty is concluded for a definite period, a statement of the period follows; or, if it is in perpetuity, there may be a provision inserted that either party may “denounce” (i.e., give notice to terminate) the treaty. Any reservations, which alter the treaty's provisions for the concerned state, may then appear; they are followed by an article that provides for the treaty's ratification and for the time and place for the exchange of ratifications. The treaty usually ends with a clause stating that “in witness whereof the respective plenipotentiaries have affixed their names and seals,” below which are the signatures and indications of the location and the date. “Additional articles” often are appended and signed by the plenipotentiaries, with the declaration that they have the same force and value as if they had been included in the body of the treaty or convention.

      International jurists (international law) have classified treaties according to a variety of principles. In addition to the distinction between multilateral and bilateral treaties, there is also the distinction between treaties representing a definite transaction (e.g., a cession of territory) and those seeking to establish a general rule of conduct (e.g., the “renunciation of war”). Treaties also have been classified according to their object, as follows: (1) political treaties, including peace treaties, alliances (alliance), territorial cessions, and disarmament treaties; (2) commercial treaties, including tariff, consular, fishery, and navigation agreements; (3) constitutional and administrative treaties, such as the conventions establishing and regulating international unions, organizations, and specialized agencies; (4) treaties relating to criminal justice, such as the treaties defining international crimes and providing for extradition; (5) treaties relating to civil justice, such as the conventions for the protection of human rights, for trademarks and copyright, and for the execution of the judgments of foreign courts; and (6) treaties codifying international law, such as the procedures for the peaceful settlement of international disputes, rules for the conduct of war, and definitions of the rights and duties of states. In practice it is often difficult to assign a particular treaty to any one of these classes, and the legal value of such distinctions is minimal.

      Treaties may be terminated or suspended through a provision in the treaty (if one exists) or by the consent of the parties. In the case of a material breach—i.e., an impermissible repudiation of the treaty or a violation of a provision essential to the treaty's object or purpose—the innocent party of a bilateral treaty may invoke that breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation. Multilateral treaties may be terminated or suspended by the unanimous agreement of all their parties. A party specially affected by a breach of a multilateral treaty may suspend the agreement as it applies to relations between itself and the defaulting state. In cases where a breach by one party significantly affects all other parties to the treaty, the other parties may suspend the entire agreement or a part of it.

Malcolm Shaw

Additional Reading
Helpful discussions of treaties can be found in Anthony Aust, Modern Treaty Law and Practice (2000); Hans Blix and Jirina H. Emerson (eds.), The Treaty Maker's Handbook (1973); T.O. Elias, The Modern Law of Treaties (1974); Arnold Duncan McNair, The Law of Treaties (1961, reprinted 1986); Shabtai Rosenne, The Law of Treaties: A Guide to the Legislative History of the Vienna Convention (1970), and Breach of Treaty (1985); and Ian Sinclair, The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 2nd ed. (1984).Malcolm Shaw

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Universalium. 2010.


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