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Researching the United Nations



Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, two hands about to shake, one has the U.S. flag on it and the other has the Mexican flag, over a white and black background


A treaty (sometimes called a convention, covenant, protocol, etc.) is an agreement between two or more nations or international organizations. It may be bilateral (between two countries), or multilateral (between three or more countries).

Ex.: International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, June 19, 1975, 973 U.N.T.S. 3, 9 I.L.M. 45.

Treaties: In General


Negotiation: The process by which the parties to a potential treaty discuss the terms to a potential agreement. This process may result in certain helpful research documents that make up the "legislative history " of the treaty, often referred to by the French term "Travaux Preparatoires.“

Adoption: The point at which a treaty text is fixed at the conclusion of the negotiation.

Signature: The point at which representatives of the negotiating parties sign the treaty. Unless stated otherwise in the treaty, this DOES not bind the parties, but merely signifies an intent to be bound.

Ratification: The act or acts that establishes a country's acceptance to be bound by a treaty. In the case of U.S. treaty practice, this occurs after a 2/3 approval by the Senate.

Accession: Consent to be bound by a treaty by a state not a party to the original treaty negotiation.

Reservations: The statement by a party, made upon signature, ratification, or accession that it will not be bound by one or more provisions of the treaty.

Declarations: A statement of policy by a party to the treaty, explaining how it will interpret or understand a provision of the treaty.

Entry into Force: The designated time that the treaty becomes binding upon the parties and enforceable under international law.

"Advice and Consent" Treaty: An international agreement between the U.S. and a foreign country that DOES require approval by the Senate.

Executive Agreement: An international agreement concluded between the U.S. and a foreign country that DOES NOT require approval by the Senate.

Status and Ratification

1. Treaties in Force: published annually by the Department of State ( Also available on Westlaw, Lexis, and HeinOnline

2. Other Sources for Updates: CCH Congressional Index (LRC Reference Index KF49.C6). 

Kavass's current treaty index

- U.S. Senate, Legislative Activities

Treaty Research Strategy

Where can I find it?

Locate the text of the treaty or agreement

Who does it bind?

1. Obtain status and ratification information. 

2. Determine if there are any reservations, understandings, or

3. Locate national implementation legislation (foreign law research).

Anything else?

Treaty intent and interpretation


Researching background information may entail looking for negotiation history (“travaux préparatoires”). Some ways to find these materials:

1. Identify the organization responsible for the treaty negotiations, often this is the U.N. or one of its specialized agencies. Locate U.N. conference documents.

2. Many multilateral treaties are negotiated at international conferences. If it is a recent conference, see if there is a website for the conference or the sponsoring body.

3. Check the LRC Catalog or journal databases, searching for the name of the treaty and the phrase Travaux Préparatoires.

4. U.S. government documents, especially hearings, reports and prints, contain valuable history and intent information.

5. Some of the most important documents are Senate Treaty Documents and Senate Executive Reports.

6. Many of these documents are available on ProQuest Congressional, Westlaw, Lexis, HeinOnline, or for free on Fdsys (the Government Printing Office's online database for official publications)

7. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (

Introduction to U.S. Treaties

U.S. Treaty Making Process: Step by Step 

1. Secretary of State authorizes negotiation

2. U.S. representative negotiate

3. Agree on terms, and upon authorization of Secretary of State, sign treaty

4. President submits treaty to Senate

5. Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers treaty and reports to Senate

6. Senate considers and approves by 2/3 majority

7. President proclaims entry into force

Locating the text of a U.S. Treaty

Statutes at Large (Stat.) (before 1950): Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States,
1776-1949 (Bevans).

United States Treaties and other International Agreements (UST) (1950-): text of treaties in the language of each signatory.

Treaties and other International Acts Series (TIAS) (1946-): advance sheet for UST (formed by merger of Treaty Series and Treaties and Other International Act Series). 

HeinOnline: U.S. Treaties and Agreements Library, U.S. Statutes at Large

Westlaw: United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, United States Statutes at Large

Lexis: U.S. Treaties on LEXIS, United States Statutes at Large

U.N. & International Treaties

When countries sign international treaties, how do we interpret the obligations the treaty places on the state? Similarly, where do we find information on state compliance and treaty accession?

Where to find U.N. and International Treaties:

The U.N. Treaty Collection is the best place to search for international agreements, ratification status for state parties, and any other relevant information surrounding the treaty. Under the tab "Registration & Publication", you will find the "UN Treaty Series", where you can use the search function to tailor your research.


Law of Treaties

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (V.C.L.T.), which entered into force in 1980, governs treaty making between states and between states and International Organizations. It contains the requirements to make an international treaty and the basic principles of treaty making, including requirements for reservations and ratification. 

Secondary Binding Sources

When researching U.N. treaties and the state's obligations under a treaty, the secondary binding sources are key. These secondary sources are interpretive texts that give a legal understanding that goes from the broad text of a treaty to a state's policy implementation of the treaty terms.

1. Treaty Committees

  • Each U.N. treaty has a committee to monitor the state parties to the treaty and the enforcement of the treaty overall.
  • Treaty committees will produce General Comments and Recommendations that explain the individual articles and clauses of treaties in more general terms. The General Comments are also useful as policy recommendations for states implementing their obligations under the treaty. These comments are binding on states and can be brought into a court of law.
  • General Comments and Recommendations can be found on the U.N. Treaty Series Collection or by accessing the specific treaty committee site.

2. Jurisprudence

  • Jurisprudence interpreting U.N. treaties and state obligations under those treaties can be very useful for your research.
  • For example, the U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Jurisprudence Database contains jurisprudence, committee correspondence, and a document search function.

3. Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts

  • The U.N. appoints individuals who specialize in one specific area or right to Special Rapporteur and Independent Expert positions. These experts provide reports and recommendations to state parties and provide additional sources of law or information in their area of expertise
  • While these reports and recommendations are more persuasive than binding sources of law, Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are on the front lines of many issues and finding their work can be excellent starting points for more specific research topics.