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Extras - Search Strategies: Researching Treaties and Other International Agreements

By Ceceile Kay Richter, Published on July 21, 1997

Ceceile Kay Richter, an independent information-research professional, contract paralegal, and Internet trainer, has worked as a research associate with Cal Info since February 1996. During this time, she has researched and retrieved foreign and international legal materials for some of the nation's leading law firms. A special acknowledgement is due Barbara C. Rainwater, International Law Reference Librarian, Georgetown University Law Center Library, whose handout at a March 1997 workshop of the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, DC was used as a reference for this column. Ceceile may be contacted through crichter@mindspring.com or at Cal Info, 202-667-9679.

(Archived September 1, 1997)

International law relates to agreements between nations. International agreements go by many names: i.e., agreement, treaty, convention, protocol, declaration, memorandum of understanding, or executive agreement. The words treaty and agreement are sometimes used as generic names for all of these, as well as being used as a specific term in a proper name.

If the only information you need is the title of a treaty, when it was negotiated, or when it took force, and the U.S. was one of the parties, you can often find this information in a source that is available in most law offices. While the texts of treaties are not printed in the U.S. Code, you will find the implementing legislation there. Frequently, the basic information about the treaty is in the implementing legislation. When you need to verify citations in legal briefs, this can be a real time saver.

If you look up the term "treaties" in the index to the U.S. Code, you will see a reference to Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States [of America] 1776-1949 (Bevans ed.) and to United States Treaties and Other International Agreements(U.S.T.) (for treaties from 1950). Both are publications of the U.S. Department of State and available for purchase from the U.S Government Printing Office (GPO). However, the first of these, a 13-volume set of treaties compiled under the direction of Charles J. Bevans and issued between 1968 and 1976, is considered an unofficial treaty source by The Bluebook, A Uniform System of Citation.

The official treaty sources from the Department of State are the Treaty Series (1778-1945), the U.S.T. (from 1950), and the Treaties and Other International Acts Series (T.I.A.S.) (1945-Present). The T.I.A.S., available by subscription from the GPO, provides advance sheets of individual treaties. Periodically, the advance sheets are bound and issued in the U.S.T. series. Until 1950, the text of treaties was included in the U.S. Statutes at Large (see index at 64 Stat. B1107). The U.S. Senate, which must ratify all treaties to which the U.S. is a party, has published its own serial sets, Senate Executive Documents (1778-1980) and Senate Treaty Documents (1981-Present). These other publications are also considered official sources by The Bluebook.

For an index to current treaties, there is another State Department publication, Treaties in Force: A List of Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States, as of January 1 of each year. It is available for purchase from the GPO, although the 1997 edition was not yet available at the beginning of July, 1997. The full text of Treaties in Force and the advance sheets from the T.I.A.S. are downloadable in PDF (portable document format) from the State Department's Internet site and in ASCII text from the State Department link via GPO Access.

A treaty can be multilateral (involving several nations) or bilateral (between two nations). Researching the latter generally depends on having access to the laws of one of the nations involved. The reference I use most often to tell me where I can obtain a copy of a multilateral agreement is Multilateral Treaties: Index and Current Status, compiled at the University of Nottingham Treaty Centre, and published by Butterworths. Commonly known as Bowman and Harris, after its authors, this reference also provides information on the status of a treaty. You must use both the main volume and its supplement for treaties to 1984 and the supplement for treaties from 1984 onward.

Search Strategy

Recently, a client provided Cal Info with the names of several treaties in English and requested that we provide the official titles in Spanish. I determined from Bowman and Harris that the authentic text of one was deposited with the UN and, of course, I went to the U.N.T.S. Another was deposited with the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS has its own treaty series and I obtained an official print, citable to the treaty series, in pamphlet form. (Be aware that the OAS Treaty Series is still referred to by its former name, the Pan American Treaty Series, in The Bluebook.)

Two other treaties on the client's list were officially deposited with the World Bank, which publishes its treaties only in pamphlet form and does not number them serially. One of those treaties had been reprinted in the U.N.T.S. and that is where I obtained the title page in Spanish. (I noticed a provision in that treaty that the depository would register it with the Secretariat of the UN in accordance with the UN Charter.) For the other treaty, I contacted the agency of the World Bank that was established by this treaty. The official with whom I spoke was quite happy to fax me a copy of the title page in Spanish and offered to mail a copy of the authentic text in the three official languages, English, French and Spanish.

Usually, Bowman and Harris cites multiple sources for the text of a treaty. To find a copy of the authentic text of the treaty from the official source, look for the name of the depository organization. The depository organization is the designated custodian of the treaty documents. If there is a citation to a publication from that organization, that is where you will find an authentic text of the treaty in all the official languages of the treaty.

The next time you use Bowman and Harris and see a citation to the United Nations Treaty Series(U.N.T.S.), look to see whether the UN is the depository organization. If it is, that means that the treaty was concluded under the auspices of the UN Secretariat. Not only is the original copy deposited with the UN Secretary General, the signing of the treaty took place in the treaty section at the UN's headquarters. Otherwise, if published in the U.N.T.S., the treaty has either been entered into by a member state and registered with the UN as required by the UN Charter, or filed and recorded with the UN at the request of a non-member state. All treaties included in the U.N.T.S. are published in the six official languages of the UN -- Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. When these were not the official languages of the treaty, the UN provides translations.

The Organization of American States (OAS in English and OAE in Spanish), the successor agency to the Pan American Union (PAU), is the depository for multilateral agreements concluded among countries of the Western Hemisphere. While The Bluebook cites just the Pan American Union Treaty Series, the P.A.U.T.S. covers only the period 1934-1956. The name was changed to the OAS Treaty Series, beginning in 1957, although the consecutive numbering of the treaties was continued. All of the treaties are now available as individual pamphlets in print and microform under the OAS's Official Records Series A (OAE/Ser.A/), which also carries the designation of OAS Treaty Series.

Sometimes, in Bowman and Harris, you will see International Legal Materials (I.L.M.) listed as the source for the text of a treaty. Published bimonthly by the American Society of International Law, I.L.M. is a compendium of advance sheets, slip laws, judicial slip opinions, and the like for the text of current documents concerned with legal aspects of public and private international relations that are otherwise not readily available. The publication includes the final text of international agreements, decisions of the International Court of Justice, resolutions of the UN and other international bodies, and even foreign laws and regulations that its editors consider significant. While not considered an official treaty source by The Bluebook, I.L.M. is sometimes the only place where you will be able to find a copy of a document.

Search Strategy

We had a client request that involved obtaining the texts of certain declarations of succession to the four Red Cross Geneva Conventions of August 1949 and the two Additional Protocols of June 1977 on the protection of war victims. Summaries of these documents were obtained from the International Review of the Red Cross (I.R.R.C.), a specialized journal in the field of international humanitarian law that had its 127th anniversary of publication July 1, 1997. Features of the documents were also found indexed in a table on the Internet site of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). To obtain copies of the actual documents, however, required writing the depository agency, the Treaty Section of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Another treaty depository agency with which I have had contact is the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Like other depositories, the Swiss Government keeps copies of the documents whereby individual states have ratified a treaty, declared their succession to a treaty, or made any reservations about a treaty. These supporting documents are not usually included in treaty compilations. For UN treaties, however, there is a ready source for the texts of such documents: Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General, Status as of Dec. 31, 1995. Supporting documents for PAU and OAS treaties were published by the OAS in Inter-American Treaties and Conventions, No. 9, a stand-alone volume. For documents subsequent, you will need to contact the OAS in Washington, DC.

An excellent Internet source for multilateral agreements is the Multilaterals Project of Tufts University. The Multilaterals Project, ongoing since 1992, is designed to make available texts of international multilateral conventions and other instruments. The file-naming system is based on Bowman and Harris. A partial list of subjects includes atmosphere and space, flora and fauna, cultural protection, trade and commercial relations, rules of warfare/arms control, and Gulf Area borders. Three great features of the Multilaterals Project are the chronological index, a searchable database, and the fact that treaty text can be downloaded in WordPerfect format. In addition, from the Multilaterals Project, there is a link to the UN Treaty database and a linkable list of treaty secretariats with known Internet servers.

The U.S. House of Representatives' web site includes the text of historical as well as current international agreements such as the World War II instruments of surrender, the North American Free Trade Agreements, and materials of the World Trade Organization. The treaty compilation is one component of the House of Representatives' International Law Library which is part of the House Law Library on the Internet. The International Law Library includes links to the laws of all jurisdictions by subject, constitutions in English and Spanish, international law summaries from Oceana publications, the U.S. State Department private international law database, a guide to researching international law, and even the text of Plato's Republic.

Search Strategy

Quite recently a client wanted the text of the final draft of a Proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I was able to satisfy the client's immediate need for the content of the agreement by pointing the client to a copy of the text on the OAS's Internet site. However, it was only through a printed document that I could fully satisfy the client's need for the history of the document and its authentic text in Spanish and English.

As fellow users of the Internet, I suspect that, like myself, the readers of this column have found themselves questioning the reliability of legal materials on the Internet. Whether using a library or the Internet, I try to obtain my information from primary sources. If I have any question about the authenticity of a text, I try to use an independent means to verify the information. The new edition of The Bluebook (16th ed., (c) 1996), which has a section on citing Internet sources, provides what is to me the most impressive reason I have seen to date for preferring information from a printed source: Because of the transient nature of many Internet sources, citation to Internet sources is discouraged unless the materials are unavailable in printed form or are difficult to obtain in their original form.