General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Researching International Treaties


International treaties are primary law sources. A treaty creates binding obligations, rights, or solutions between two or more nations and often, when in effect for a nation, becomes a part of its domestic code of legal requirements. An intergovernmental organization may enter into certain treaties, but corporations and associations may not. A treaty made in earnest, such as a ministry-to-ministry assistance arrangement or a secret pact, is binding.

A treaty may be termed an agreement, an accord, a compact, a protocol, or, if it is the statute of an intergovernmental organization, a charter. A joint declaration, ratified by its signatories, is also a treaty. Treaties can be tracked through mentions in news reports, court cases, political science journals, congressional hearings, and consultant studies for doing business abroad, among others.

Research in a university or law library is the science of selectively hunting down, collating, and integrating information that is relevant to a purpose. The treaty is a type of document, like a General Assembly resolution or a court case. Although relatively few nations print and distribute their treaties or have uniform treaty publication practices, most treaty instruments are available in some form. The problem in treaty research is the ability to identify and obtain current treaties and to determine their status.

There are two approaches to treaty literature research. In one approach, you have a particular treaty in mind, know its function and at least one of the parties to it, and want its text, status, or depositary. In the other approach, you need an exemplary treaty with specific subject matter—for example, international copyright protection.

Specific Treaties

In order to locate a treaty in a research or law school library, you need to know at least one of the nations signatory to the treaty, its title or purpose, and an approximate date. To determine whether the library has copies of a foreign nation’s treaties, you can do a subject search in the library’s catalog: "philippines—treaties" or "france— foreign relations—treaties." To determine general indexes and references to the treaties of all nations (and intergovernmental organizations), you can do a subject search: "treaties—indexes." If you identify a national treaty publication that the library does not own, you can request it through interlibrary loan or write to the nation’s ministry of foreign affairs and request a single copy of the treaty (use Europa World Yearbook for addresses of foreign ministries).

If the treaty is multilateral, you need to know its title and approximate date, or its date and approximate title or subject. For a well-known multilateral agreement, you can do a catalog subject search: "treaty on conventional armed forces in europe" or "convention on the law of the sea." You can also do a keyword-in-title search in an online catalog, especially for such abbreviations as "CFE" and "INF." (CFE is an acronym for the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, signed on November 19, 1990; INF is an acronym for the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate Range Missiles, signed on December 8, 1987.) If you know that the treaty is administered by an intergovernmental organization (IGO) or that an IGO acts as depository for it, use the catalog to determine whether the library carries that IGO’s publications. If it doesn’t, write or e-mail that organization and request a copy of the treaty or its status (use the Yearbook of International Organizations for such addresses).

Exemplary Treaties

In order to look for a treaty by its subject matter, you need keywords (suitable subject headings), synonyms, and an idea of the desired treaty’s purpose or benefits to use in the library’s specialized topic indexes. You can look for topical treaty indexes with subject searches like "double taxation—treaties." Sometimes "law and legislation" is used as a subsection in lieu of "treaties," i.e., "investments—law and legislation." You can also guess probable keywords of the titles of topical indexes and compilations ("human rights conventions," "environment treaties," and so forth. Most topical indexes will lead to multilateral treaties in multilateral treaty compilations or will direct you to collections of nations that attend all international conferences resulting in international agreements.

Topical indexes include:

• Australia: Australian Treaties Library (; Internet Law Library Treaties and International Law (

• Canada: Treaty Series

• France: Recueil des Traités et Accords de la France

• Germany: Vertrage der Bundesrepublic Deutschland Series A (English and French text translations)

• Great Britain: Treaty Series; British Command Papers

• United States: Treaties in Force (; United States Treaties and Other International Agreements; GPO Monthly Catalog

However, beware that certain issues like extradition, double taxation, investment protection, economic or military assistance, and mutual assistance in criminal matters are normally concluded bilaterally.

If the treaty is so recent that you doubt that its text is already in any standard treaty series, you can try to locate it in alternative sources:

International Legal Materials

Congressional Index

Congressional Universe (; must be registered to use)

• UN publications such as Statement of Treaties and International Agreements Registered or Filed and Recorded with the Secretariat During the Month of...

• Senate Treaties website (

• Department of State Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs (202/647-2044; fax 202/736-7541)

• Senate Document Room (202/224-7701; fax 202/228-2815)

• Legislative Information Service (202/225-1772)

• United Nations Treaty Information Offices

(212/963-5047; 212/963-3813; 212/963-2523)

Websites that are especially good for finding recent multilateral conventions include:

Australia’s Australian Treaties Library (; Internet Law Library Treaties and International Law ( hrill/89.htm)

European Treaty Series (


Organization of American States Treaty Series (

Multilaterals Project Chronological Index (

Good Research Principles

Good research skills are invaluable. If you are researching an obscure foreign treaty, the following three steps can help:

State what you want to find in one sentence. Trace back to your initial acquaintance with the treaty's title, contents, or citation. Write down the important search terms, such as probable title words, date, the treaty’s purpose, or the subject matter. Ask yourself whether there are multiple parts to the treaty request, such as the treaty and its consequences. This is the most important step. It is why a request for information that is passed from one librarian to another is difficult to fulfill; the librarian two or three steps removed from the requesting individual cannot readily obtain additional search words or other clues from that person.

Be patient. Keep your interest high, and allow yourself to spend time with indexes and read through some of the treaty texts. If you know for certain that you will use both paper and electronic references, begin with the paper. If the treaty name contains distinctive words, use an electronic index. Keep track of the descriptors that you employ.

If you are after a very recent treaty, check the following sources:

United Nations Treaty Collection ( (registration required)

Statement of Treaties and International Agreements Registered or Filed and Recorded with the Secretariat During the Month of... (United Nations Publications)

Multilaterals Project Chronological Index (

United Nations Master Treaty Index on CD-ROM (William S. Hein Company)

Congressional Universe (Congressional Information Service) (

Congressional Index (Commerce Clearing House)

International Legal Materials (American Society of International Law)

Senate Treaties website (

If you fail to hit with these indexes, you need more information about the treaty (what international organization sponsored it or whether it actually exists). You can look for secondary information by using Newspaper Abstracts, ArticleFirst, PAIS International, LegalTrac, the UN site for press briefings and releases (, or search engines such as AltaVista.

Learn from the job itself. Keep notes of your difficult searches, in case you need to repeat one. The more wrong turns and diversions that you took on a tough search, the more valuable is a map of the straightest route. Keep notes of titles, call numbers, page numbers, web addresses, phone numbers, contact persons, books found in other libraries, etc.

If you fail but another researcher or librarian finds the treaty, ask what tactics were used and then replicate all the search actions for your own benefit. The researcher was more than lucky; he or she knew what you did not. However, if the librarian helping with your research fails to find what you need, consult with another librarian.

Edward Grosek is an assistant professor in charge of United Nations’ and other international organizations’ publications at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. He can be reached by e-mail at .  

Back to Top

< /