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Introduction to International Treaties

Item #d99mar48

Speaking at the Costa Rica–Canada Initiative Experts’ Meeting, Barbara Ruis of the Free University in, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, described the general concepts and terms associated with international legal instruments. Such instruments may be derived from international law, treaties, custom, general legal principles, judicial decisions, learned writers, acts of international organizations, and equity. However, mechanisms or institutions for the creation or reform of public international law do not exist as they do at the national level. As a result, the relationship between older treaties and new ones (like the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Convention on Biological Diversity) is often unclear. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties defines a treaty as "an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation." Such designations include treaties, agreements, conventions, charters, protocols, and declarations, which can vary in political significance but carry the same legal weight.

Treaties enter into force in four stages: securing domestic authority to negotiate a treaty; negotiating; consenting to be bound by the treaty; and completing an agreed-upon period of time before actual entry into force. Much of this process occurs at the national level. A treaty can enter into force by virtue of

  • ratification by all drafting states,
  • specification of an activation date, or
  • specification of conditions that activate the treaty.

A country normally demonstrates its intent to be bound by a treaty by attaching its signature to it; a signatory then ratifies the treaty in an expression of its consent to be bound. A party can have a reservation incorporated into a treaty, and the agreed-upon text of a treaty can be subsequently changed by the process of amendment. Under international law, customary international law has equal status with treaties but applies to all states equally, whereas treaties apply only to signatories.

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