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Treaty Research

This guide describes resources and methods for locating and updating treaties of the United States and other countries.

Introduction

A treaty is an international agreement concluded between two or more sovereign states in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments.  Treaties go by many names:  conventions, agreements, covenants, pacts, charters, and statutes, among others.  The choice of name has no legal significance.  Treaties generally fall into one of two broad categories:  bilateral (between two countries) and multilateral (between three or more countries). 

Treaty Research Process

The four steps of the treaty research process are outlined below.  The sources you consult will vary, depending on whether the treaty is bilateral or multilateral and on whether or not the the U.S. is a party to the treaty.

  • Step 1:  Find a citation to a full-text treaty source.
  • Step 2:  Retrieve the full text of the treaty.
  • Sept 3:  Determine the current status of the treaty.  Has it entered into force?  Which countries are state parties to the treaty?  Did any state party ratify the treaty subject to any declarations or reservations?  Have there been any subsequent amendments to the treaty? 
  • Step 4:  If the text of the treaty is ambiguous, you may need to locate its drafting history to help you interpret its meaning.  Drafting histories are also known as travaux préparatoires (preparatory works).
     

Treaty Databases and Online Treaty Collections

As print resources have migrated online, it is now often possible to perform the first two or three steps of the treaty research process by using an online treaty database, such as HeinOnline's U.S. Treaties and Agreements Library or the U.N. Treaty Collection.

In addition, there are many free online treaty collections that focus on a particular jurisdiction, region or subject matter.  Depending on the type of treaty you are researching, it may be faster to use one of these online treaty collections as your starting point rather than following the conventional four-step treaty research process.  This is particularly true for major multilateral treaties and for certain types of bilateral treaties, notably bilateral investment treaties.

 

International & Foreign Reference

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International Reference Desk:
Wolff International & Comparative Law Library, Lower Level
(202) 662-4195

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Treaty Research Tutorial

Treaty Research Tutorial