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United Nations Treaties: A Research Guide: Quick Start Guide

This guide provides detailed instructions for how to find treaties and associated treaty actions in the United Nations' Treaty Collection and other websites.

Quick Start Guide

Want to get started quickly without a lot of explanation? Try these links!

Scroll down for a bit more information on each option or click on the other tabs for a more detailed explanation.

Treaty Website

Important multilateral treaties will often have their own websites.  Here, Google is your friend. Try searching for your treaty by name.  For example, a search for the Basel Convention returns several useful and relevant pages.

  • The first result is the official website for the Basel Convention.  Here you can find the text of the treaty (not always authenticated), the status of the parties, documents from the meetings of the parties, and other documents of interest such as the results of investigations carried out under the auspices of the treaty.
  • The second entry -- Wikipedia, while not authoritative,  can often be helpful in providing a general overview of a topic and suggest additional, more authoritative, places to find information
  • The third entry, is for an NGO dedicated to working on the issues covered in the Basel Convention.  This might be a good place to look for more information on current issues and an unofficial opinion on the politics and effectiveness of a given treaty.
  • The fourth entry is a Commentary from the Convention's Executive Secretary exploring the drafting and negotiation of the Convention.

Popular Name

If you are working with an important treaty, one of the fastest ways to find the authentic text and status of participating countries is via the

UNTC Advanced Search

  • from the Advanced Search Tab, first select the "treaty" as the type of document
  • the second drop down menu will populate, allowing you to filter by various criteria including
    • Date of conclusion
    • English title
    • Participant
    • Treaty type
    • Volume Number

UNTC Title Search

  • from the Title Search Tab, type in the exact title (select match phrase) or a few key words (select match all these words)
  • NOTE: this search returns the main treaty document AND subsequent and related documents.
  • NOTE: the title search is not always effective, especially for older treaty documents.

UNTS Citation

Sometimes, especially if your treaty is obscure or you are looking in the footnotes of an article, you may have a UNTS (or LNTS) citation but not the name of the treaty.  In such cases, HeinOnline's United Nations Law Collection is the place to go. 

At the top of the page, underneath the content of the library is a "Finding Aids" section. Here, enter the UNTS or LNTS citation. This search takes you to a specific page in the UNTS volume so that you can identify the name of the treaty, important dates, and signatories at time of publication.  Remember to update this information before using it!

Subject Matter

If you don't have a title or citation for your treaty, you will have to look it up by subject matter.  For example, you know that there is an international agreement regarding the transportation of hazardous waste between countries but you don't know what it is called.

 

Electronic Information System for International Law (EISIL)

  • EISIL only covers multilateral treaties and is not always complete or up-to-date. However, it can provide a good starting point for your research.
  • Browse or search through the subject headings to identify the area of law of interest.
  • Once you have identified the correct treaty, clicking on the treaty name takes you to the text.
  • Clicking on "More Information" takes you to a citation containing pertinent information such as:
    • Sources for treaty text, Conclusion and Entry into Force, Brief Description, Legal Citation, and related treaties.

Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General (MTDSG)

The MTDSG Status of Treaties is organized into 29 subject categories.

Each of these categories is further subdivided by subtopic.  For example, Chapter 27 (XXVII) on the Environment is further subdivided into 16 environmental topics.

Topic 3 covers hazardous waste and includes:

3. Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.   Basel, 22 March 1989
3.a. Amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.   Geneva, 22 September 1995
3.b. Basel Protocol on Liability and Compensation for Damage Resulting from Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.   Basel, 10 December 1999

Clicking on a title takes you to the treaty record.

 

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Introduction

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Treaty?

What is and isn't a treaty can be a very complicated issue of international and domestic law and is outside the scope of this research guide.  For ease of use, all international agreements, conventions, understandings, and treaties that may be included in the various resources described in this guide are referred to simply as 'treaties'. Please keep in mind that not all the documents contained in the resources described may carry the full weight of a 'treaty' as defined by international law.  These various types of agreements do often have very similar documentation.  That documentation is the focus of this guide.

Treaty Documentation

The type of treaty material you are looking for will vary with the type of research.  Most commonly, you will want to find:

    • An authenticated copy of the text in a format that can be cited in a footnote.
    • An up-to-date list of the treaty members with information on reservations, declarations, or notifications that they may have made when joining.
    • Amendments or later additions to the treaty.
    • Proceedings from the Conference of the Parties (if available).
    • Preparatory documents associated with the drafting and negotiation of the treaty.
    • Commentaries or judicial decisions interpreting particular sections of a treaty.

 

Where to Look?

In addition to sponsoring the creation of treaties, the United Nations also serves as a central repository and notification center for treaties created outside the auspices of the UN.  A researcher will often have to look in a few places to find all the treaty information she needs.  This guide provides instructions for finding treaties using:

Overview of Treaty Publication Process

A treaty can appear in the UNTS via a few different pathways. The chart belows provides a visual summary of when you can expect a treaty to be in the UNTS and if it is not there, where else you might look.

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Reference Material

Online tools

This publication has been prepared by the Treaty Section of the Office of Legal Affairs as a guide to the Secretary-General's practice as a depositary of multilateral treaties and the Secretariat's practice in relation to the registration and publication functions. It is particularly useful for its straightforward and practice-oriented definitions.
 
 
It is intended to assist States in becoming party to the international treaty framework. It is written in simple language and, with the aid of diagrams and step-by-step instructions, touches upon many aspects of treaty law and practice. This Handbook is designed for use by States, international organizations and other entities. In particular, it is intended to assist States with scarce resources and limited technical proficiency in treaty law and practice to participate fully in the multilateral treaty framework.
Provides a brief description of each of the databases in the UNTC and what users can expect for find within each one.  The overview page contains a glossary of terms related to treaty actions written in plain language.
The Treaty Section of the OLA is responsible for:
  • Analysing, registering, filing, recording and publishing treaties and other international agreements pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter;
  • Discharging the Secretary-General's depositary functions under multilateral treaties;
  • Issuing publications pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter and the related General Assembly Regulations, developing and maintaining an electronic database and information system to facilitate access to treaty information and providing advice and information on treaty law and related matters;
  • Collaborating in the drafting of final clauses of treaties and agreements concluded under the auspices of the United Nations;
  • Preparing studies on relevant Articles of the Charter for the Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs.

 

Other Research Guides

À la Recherche des Travaux PréparatoiresAn Approach to Researching the Drafting History of International Agreements. This Globalex research guide provides an overview of the various types of drafting history that may be available and how to begin searching for it.

 

Frequently Cited Treaties & Other International InstrumentsA research guide from the University of Minnesota, containing links and citations to hundreds of multi-lateral treaties. Arranged by subject area.

 
 

Hardcopy Library Resources

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UNTS

Scope

The United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS) is a collection of treaties and international agreements registered or filed and recorded with and published by the Secretariat since 1946, pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter. The UNTS includes the texts of treaties in their authentic language(s), along with translations into English and French, as appropriate. The collection currently contains over 158,000 records of treaties and related subsequent actions combined which have been published in hard copy in over 2,500 volumes. Currently, the UNTS is being expanded to include the latest desktop published volumes. Its online version covers the range of materials published from December 1946 to April 2008.

Using the UNTC Online

UNTC Title Search

    -    from the Title Search Tab, type in the exact title (select match phrase) or a few key words (select match all these words)

 

     -   NOTE: this search returns the main treaty document AND subsequent and related documents.

 

     -   NOTE: the title search is not always effective, especially for older treaty documents that may be lacking good metadata.

 

Getting to the treaty record from the UNTS

Whether you are searching through the UNTS or browsing the MTDSG, the treaty record is the same and contains valuable information for the researcher.  The UN Office of Legal Affairs has a webpage explaining the information found in the treaty record.

Once you have conducted your search, you will see a brief list of treaties. You can re-order your list by clicking on one of the other headings.

The Registration Number is assigned to the treaty by the Treaty Section of the Secretariat when a member state submits a treaty for registration. Registation is required before a treaty can be invoked before the ICJ or any other organ of the UN. Registration numbers beginning with the letter "I" refer to treaty 'instruments' and numbers beginning with the letter "A" refer to treaty 'annexes'. Important information is often included in the annexes, so these documents should not be overlooked in your research.

 

Click on the relevant title to go to the Treaty Record.

Understanding the Treaty Record

 

The treaty record is the same whether you go through the MTDSG or the UNTS. At the top of the record, you see some basic information. The "STATUS AS AT" information displays the current time (e.g. the time you ran the search) and does not mean that treaty gnomes are updating status information for treaties 24-7. Generally, information is updated within the month. Next comes the chapter information for the MTDSG, the official title of the treaty, and the place and date on whic it was concluded.

The entry into force date comes next. This date is negotiated as part of the treaty and so reference is made to the appropriate article. Note the registration date is the same as the entry into force date.  This is because a treaty cannot be registered with with the Secretary General until it has entered into force. The Status information provides a summary of the number of Signatories (those supportive of the idea) and Parties (those legally bound).

The next section, entitled "Text" is important. It is akin to the legislative history of a domestic law. It begins with the initial publication (and translated copies) of the treaty in the UNTS with volume and page number (what you need to construct a BlueBook citation!). Next, listed in chronological order, are all the subsequent depository notifications (C.N.) made by the parties ammending the text and associated annexes of the treaty.

Individual Country Ratification Information

Beneath the identifying information and treaty amendments comes the status information for participating individual countries. This information is important for understanding a country's legal obligation under the treaty. While this information is updated, there is some lag. If you suspect a country's status has changed, check with another authoritative source such as that country's state department or office of foreign affairs. In the example above, Afghanistan was a signatory to the treaty (likely participating in the treaty negotiation) but never ratified the treaty through their domestic process. Albania was not a signatory to the treaty but did acede to if after it entered into force. 

Algeria aceded to the treaty after it entered into force, but it did so with a RUD (Reservation, Understanding, or Declaration). A RUD is a unilateral statement by the country, made when joining the treaty, which purports to modify or exclude the legal effects of some portion of the treaty. Some treaties prohibit RUDs. In the example of Algeria aceding to the Basel Convention, Algeria included a declaration stating that both parties must agree to submit a dispute to the ICJ or an arbitral body before that body has any jurisdiction. The RUD is hyperlinked from Algeria's name in the status table and all the Declarations are listed in a table immediately following the status information.

Argentina has dates in both columns, meaning it was both a signatory and went through the domestic process of ratification. A detailed explanation of the status information is available in the UN Treaty Handbook.

 

 

 

 

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MTDSG

Topical Treaty Arrangement

CHAPTER I

Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice

CHAPTER II

Pacific Settlement of International Disputes

CHAPTER III

Privileges and Immunities, Diplomatic and Consular Relations, etc

CHAPTER IV

Human Rights

CHAPTER V

Refugees and Stateless Persons

CHAPTER VI

Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

CHAPTER VII

Traffic in Persons

CHAPTER VIII

Obscene Publications

CHAPTER IX

Health

CHAPTER X

International Trade and Development

CHAPTER XI

Transport and Communications

CHAPTER XII

Navigation

CHAPTER XIII

Economic Statistics

CHAPTER XIV

Educational and Cultural Matters

CHAPTER XV

Declaration of Death of Missing Persons

CHAPTER XVI

Status of Women

CHAPTER XVII

Freedom of Information

CHAPTER XVIII

Penal Matters

CHAPTER XIX

Commodities

CHAPTER XX

Maintenance Obligations

CHAPTER XXI

Law of the Sea

CHAPTER XXII

Commercial Arbitration

CHAPTER XXIII

Law of Treaties

CHAPTER XXIV

Outer Space

CHAPTER XXV

Telecommunications

CHAPTER XXVI

Disarmament

CHAPTER XXVII

Environment

CHAPTER XXVIII

Fiscal Matters

CHAPTER XXIX

Miscellaneous

Search Options

The MTDSG allows for an Advanced Search, an Index Search, a full text search, and a search by participant.

While the Advanced Search screens in the UNTS and MTDSG are similarly structured, the quality of the search results in the MTDSG are much higher. One suspects this is due to the smaller number of treaties contained in the MTDSG.

Advanced Search

 

Full Text Search

The Full-text Search does search through the PDF treaty documents. You can search for single words or for exact phrases. The resulting list shows you both the UN and LON multilateral treaties containing your word, but not where it appears or how frequently.  Once the PDF of the treaty is opened, you must conduct the search in your PDF reader again to locate the word or phrase. 

Scope

Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General (MTDSG) provides information on the status of over 500 major multilateral instruments deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations (as of 1 January 2009) and covers a range of subject matter such as Human Rights, Disarmament, Commodities, Refugees, the Environment and the Law of the Sea. The number of treaties deposited with the Secretary-General keeps growing steadily. This publication reflects the status of these instruments, as Member States sign, ratify, accede or lodge declarations, reservations or objections. It is over one thousand pages in length and is published annually in hard copy (three volumes). The on-line version is currently updated daily.

Using the MTDSG Online

The default page when you enter the MTDSG contains the UN treaties by topic.

To the left is a tab containing excellent introductory information: an explanation of the scope of the MTDSG and summary of the types of status a country may have in relation to a treaty.

Immediately to the right, are the League of Nation (LON) treaties. Historical Information covers sovereignty and territorial changes for countries. The INDEX is organized by MTDSG Reference number and can also be searched. The search options are discussed below.

When looking at the default page, UN treaties by topic, you can see that the treaties have been organized into 29 chapters by topic. If we want to find the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, we would first browse through the list of topics.

Transport & Communication and Environment both seem like potential Chapters where the Basel Convention might be listed, since it is about the movement of hazardous waste. 

Most likely, if you have the name of a specific convention, you will just search for it.  However, if you know that there is a treaty dealing with hazardous waste, but don't have an exact name, then browsing is a good option.  This treaty is more about the topic of hazardous waste than it is about transportation, so select the hyperlinked chapter 27 for Environment treaties.  

Once you locate the Basel Convention (listed as the 3rd set of agreements here), click on the title to go to the MTDSG/UNTS record page.

Understanding the Treaty Record

 

The treaty record is the same whether you go through the MTDSG or the UNTS. At the top of the record, you see some basic information. The "STATUS AS AT" information displays the current time (e.g. the time you ran the search) and does not mean that treaty gnomes are updating status information for treaties 24-7. Generally, information is updated within the month. Next comes the chapter information for the MTDSG, the official title of the treaty, and the place and date on whic it was concluded.

The entry into force date comes next. This date is negotiated as part of the treaty and so reference is made to the appropriate article. Note the registration date is the same as the entry into force date.  This is because a treaty cannot be registered with with the Secretary General until it has entered into force. The Status information provides a summary of the number of Signatories (those supportive of the idea) and Parties (those legally bound).

The next section, entitled "Text" is important. It is akin to the legislative history of a domestic law. It begins with the initial publication (and translated copies) of the treaty in the UNTS with volume and page number (what you need to construct a BlueBook citation!). Next, listed in chronological order, are all the subsequent depository notifications (C.N.) made by the parties ammending the text and associated annexes of the treaty.

Individual Country Ratification Information

Beneath the identifying information and treaty amendments comes the status information for participating individual countries. This information is important for understanding a country's legal obligation under the treaty. While this information is updated, there is some lag. If you suspect a country's status has changed, check with another authoritative source such as that country's state department or office of foreign affairs. In the example above, Afghanistan was a signatory to the treaty (likely participating in the treaty negotiation) but never ratified the treaty through their domestic process. Albania was not a signatory to the treaty but did acede to if after it entered into force. 

Algeria aceded to the treaty after it entered into force, but it did so with a RUD (Reservation, Understanding, or Declaration). A RUD is a unilateral statement by the country, made when joining the treaty, which purports to modify or exclude the legal effects of some portion of the treaty. Some treaties prohibit RUDs. In the example of Algeria aceding to the Basel Convention, Algeria included a declaration stating that both parties must agree to submit a dispute to the ICJ or an arbitral body before that body has any jurisdiction. The RUD is hyperlinked from Algeria's name in the status table and all the Declarations are listed in a table immediately following the status information.

Argentina has dates in both columns, meaning it was both a signatory and went through the domestic process of ratification. A detailed explanation of the status information is available in the UN Treaty Handbook.

 

 

 

 

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More UNTC

Monthly Statements (MS)

The Monthly statements are issued, in English and French, by the Treaty Section of the Office of Legal Affairs.  These monthly statements contains detailed records of treaties and related subsequent treaty actions which were registered or filed and recorded with the Secretariat on a given month. It is updated monthly. The chronological range of the online collection is 1970 - present. The pdf version of the monthly statements are arranged in reverse chronological order. The user can browse by month, or search.
 
The advanced search interface, allows you to search on a large number of criteria.
 
 
From the resulting list, you can identify the treaty action of interest. Go to that Monthly Statement and retrieve the PDF documenting the treaty actions.
 
                                     

Depository Notifications (CN)

The depositary is required to provide treaty related information to all interested parties on the treaties deposited with him. The Secretary-General, as depositary of multilateral treaties, provides this information by issuing depositary notifications. Depositary notifications might be in regard to:

  • Opening of treaties for signature;
  • Signatures affixed to treaties;
  • Deposit of binding instruments, such as, instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession;
  • Deposit of notifications of succession;
  • Reservations, declarations and territorial applications;
  • Communications, objections to reservations, withdrawal of reservations and withdrawal of objections;
  • Denunciations and terminations;
  • Any other information that, in the opinion of the Secretary-General, should be made known to the interested parties. 

The database may be browsed or searched.

Certified True Copies

The Certified True Copies Database contains PDF version of the Certified True Copy (CTC) of each of the multilateral treaties for which the Secretary-General is a depositary (so-called ex-officio multilateral treaties). The CTC includes the treaty translated into all the official languages of the treaty.

For most research purposes, it is not necessary to consult a CTC, as the UNTS reprints the text of the CTC. 

 

The CTC database may be accessed by browsing or searching.

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Other Treaty Websites

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Multilateral and bilateral treaties are not always deposited with the UN.  Sometimes they are deposited with other international organizations. The depositary is one of the places to look for updated status information and subsequent treaty actions (such as conferences of the parties). Remember, a treaty might be published in UNTS but deposited with another international organization or individual country.

Even when a treaty has been deposited with the UN, it is sometimes faster to locate relevant treaty information on a specialized website with more specialized information.

Below are just a few of the most frequently used online treaty collections.

WIPO

ILO

NatLaw World

Council of Europe

EU Treaties

WIPO

The  World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the United Nations agency dedicated to the use of intellectual property (patents,copyright, trademarks, designs, etc.) as a means of stimulating innovation and creativity.  Their mission is to promote innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries, through a blanced and effective international intellectual property system.  

In service of this mission, WIPO administers the intellectual property treaties. The treaty page contains convenient links to the relevant treaties and helpful interpretive information.

www.wipo.int/treaties/en/

ILO

The ILO is the international organization responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. It is the only 'tripartite' United Nations agency that brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers to jointly shape policies and programmes promoting Decent Work for all. This unique arrangement gives the ILO an edge in incorporating 'real world' knowledge about employment and work.

To facilitate this work, ILO provides NORMLEX, an information system on International Labor Standards.

www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/

NatLaw World (formerly Inter-Am)

The National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade is affiliated with the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. The Center is dedicated to developing the legal infrastructure to build trade capacity and promote economic development in the Americas. The Center has developed the NatLaw World Legal Database of laws, regulations and secondary source materials for several countries in the Americas. This database includes a collection of treaties, free trade agreements, and international agreements affecting the Americas. The database contains English translations of many important treaties,supplementary treaty material, and links to other sources of treaty information. 

http://www.natlaw.com/natlaw-world

 

 

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg France, covers virtually the entire European continent, with its 47 member countries. Founded in1949, the Council of Europe seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.

For each of the 200+ treaties in the COE database, the user can:

  • view a chart of signatures and ratifications,
  • see a list of declarations, reservations, and other communications,
  • view the full text of the treaty in HTML or Word format
  • view a summary and explanatory report

www.conventions.coe.int/

EU Treaties

 

EUR-Lex provides free access to European Union law and other documents considered to be public. The website is available in 23 official languages of the European Union. The contents of the site amount to some 2,815,000 documents with texts dating back to 1951. Among the documents found on the site are an extensive collection of Treaties and International Agreements.

 

http://eur-lex.europa.eu/collection/eu-law/treaties.html​

 

The Treaty collection from the European Commission complements the treaty collection on Eur-Lex. It contains all the bilateral and multilateral treaties or agreements concluded by the European Community, the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) and the former European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and those concluded under the Treaty on European Union. Agreements signed but not yet in force are identified by an asterisk (*).

The Database does not include the “founding treaties” of the European Community and European Union or other agreements concluded between the Member States of the European Union, as these are found in Eur-Lex.

http://ec.europa.eu/world/agreements/default.home.do

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