November 20, 2018

Understanding Peace Treaties

In today’s global news media, passing references to peace treaties are quite common. It is useful, however, for teachers to understand more about these agreements, their significance, the procedures that precede their development, and the distinctive qualities of these legal primary source documents.

Defining Peace Treaties

What is a peace treaty? It is a legal agreement between two or more hostile parties, usually countries or governments, which formally ends a state of war between the two parties. Peace treaties are different from other international documents that control conflicts in that they are often the culmination of international peace discussions, and seek permanent resolutions by establishing conditions for peace. A peace treaty is not the same as a surrender, in which one party agrees to give up arms; or a cease fire, in which parties agree to suspend hostilities temporarily; or an armistice agreement, in which parties agree to stop hostilities, but do not agree to long term conditions for peace. Any, or all, of these documents, however, may precede the execution of a peace treaty between two parties. Conflicts might first end with the surrender of one party, or a compromised cease fire agreement. These might be followed by an armistice agreement, as in the case of the Korean War in 1953. In such circumstances, permanent conditions for conflict resolution may be finally enunciated in a formal peace treaty.
Peace treaties may also be distinguished from peace agreements. Peace treaties generally involve separate sovereign nation-states. In recent years, however, the international community has been compelled to reconsider how peace treaties might be used to resolve not only conflicts between nations, but conflicts within nations. Peace agreements, which serve similar legal functions as a peace treaty, are often negotiated between warring parties within one nation.
A peace treaty between the Hittites and Egyptians, following the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C., is commonly regarded as the first recorded. A copy of this treaty is displayed at the United Nations Headquarters. Many nations formally resolve conflicts through peace treaties, with each treaty customized to the conflict and relevant parties. Peace treaties have common goals, provisions, and formats. This allows us to analyze them as a type of legal document.

Common Issues, Similar Components

Peace treaties, while varied, generally have one broad common goal: to outline conditions for permanent resolution of hostilities between two warring parties. To this end, peace treaty provisions tend to address common issues. These include the formal designation of borders, access to and allocation of natural and manmade resources, settlement of relevant debts, recognition of refugees, processes for solving future disputes, and identification of relevant behaviors for abiding by the treaty’s provisions.
In addition to similar provisions, peace treaties exhibit similar formats. They often begin with an introduction, or preamble, which states the purpose of the peace treaty. These introductions often forgo restating any, often debated, facts about the conflict, but simply declare that peace will commence. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain in 1783, for example, begins with a preface that declares intentions of both parties to “forget all past misunderstandings and differences,” and “secure both perpetual peace and harmony.” The Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, signed in 1994, includes a preamble, which declares the “termination of the state of belligerency” between the two nations. World War I’s Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, forgoes an extended formal introduction in favor of a descriptive title, followed by immediate articles establishing the League of Nations.
Following the beginning of the peace treaty are provisions—the heart of the peace agreement. Because provisions may be numerous and deal with many issues, they are often organized within the treaty, similar to other long documents. Many treaties are broken into parts, sections, chapters, and finally, articles. The Treaty of Versailles, for example, has fifteen parts. Part I establishes the League of Nations while Part II outlines formal borders of Germany and Part XI details conditions for aerial navigation. Each part is then broken down into sections, each section into chapters, and each chapter into articles. So, for example, Part X, Economic Clauses, includes Section I, Commercial Relations, which includes Chapter 1, Customs Regulations, Duties, and Restrictions, which includes Article 264, which explicitly prohibited Germany from putting certain restrictions on imported goods.
A less complex treaty, however, such as the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War, for example, has no parts, chapters, or sections, but rather just fifteen articles. Similarly, the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace includes 30 articles.


All peace treaties have signatories, or parties who agree to sign, or abide by, the document, including the parties involved with the conflict. Becoming a signatory to a treaty may take many forms, and is often followed by a full ratification process, which enacts the treaty as law. In the case of the United States, the U.S. Constitution outlines a strict treaty ratification process.  Only the U.S. President, may sign treaties, but the U.S. Senate must also agree to ratify the treaty before the United States may be declared a party to the treaty. As a result, the United States is a signatory to many treaties that have not yet been ratified.
Just as one peace treaty may have multiple signatories, one complex conflict may have multiple peace treaties as part of a resolution. Following World War II, for example, aside from being party to several armistice agreements with other nations, the United States was one signatory on no less than three separate peace treaties, including the Paris Peace Treaties, which established peace with Italy, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Finland in 1947; the Treaty of San Francisco, which ended war with Japan in 1952; and the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, in 1990.

Role of the International Community

The international community plays a significant role in peace treaty negotiations, signing, ratification, and enforcement. The United Nations not only provides an international forum for nations to successfully negotiate peace treaties, but also oversees bodies of international law, which help to outline treaty-making processes and acceptable conditions for long-term peace. Many international conventions, or bodies of law that nations agree to follow, govern the treaty-making process.  The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, for example, governs the international treaty-making process. It mandates, for example, that peace treaties be written, include signatories, and maintain the same meanings in all relevant translations.
When a nation violates terms of a peace treaty, the international community is quick provide assistance with third party mediators or meeting space. In 2012, for example, Israel accused Egypt of violating the terms of their 1979 Sinai Peace Accords. A third-party mediator from the United States met with leaders of the nation to discuss the dispute. If violations continue, members of the international community are also poised to issue sanctions against a violating party in hopes of deterring future violations, or provide assistance to other nations as needed.
Peace treaties continue to play an important role in today’s international affairs. They continue to be an end goal for many nations, even in today’s modern era of seemingly indeterminate war. As legal documents, they seem to offer clear voices in an otherwise complex landscape.

SIDEBAR: Locating and Learning More about Peace Treaties

U.S. Department of State

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Assistant Legal Advisor for Treaty Affairs serves as a clearinghouse for all United States treaty activities. A searchable database provides access to all past and present treaties, as well as all treaty actions.
Transitional Justice Institute
Sponsored by the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom, this organization catalogs hundreds of peace agreements, especially those emerging from civil wars. There are also publications about peace agreement trends.
United Nations Treaty Collection
Every treaty involving members of the United Nations is cataloged here. There are also free publications, as well as links to educational events.