Treaties: Cooperation is Key


Imagine you are deciding what candy to buy. You see that one bag of chocolate supports endangered species, comes from fair trade practices, and has packaging made from recycled material. The other bag of chocolate is individually wrapped, using more plastic, and from a company that you know is cutting down the rainforest. However, it has a lower price. How do you make the decision? 

Now picture the millions of chocolate lovers in the world, making the same choice about which chocolate to buy. If everyone purchased from the company that was more careless with resources, our planet would be in worse condition. However, if everyone pitched in a bit more for an environmentally friendly brand, we could be working to restore our world. Countries and International Organizations also face this challenge of collective action. When each state does what it wants without considering how we affect each other, we are worse off. However, by working together on problems that impact us all, states can find solutions that benefit everyone. 


To promote international cooperation, multiple countries or International Organizations (IOs) work together to make treaties. Treaties are also called agreements, conventions, protocols, or covenants. Treaties come in all forms. They can be bilateral, just between two states, or multilateral, between three or more actors. Agreements can contain definitive transactions, like exchanging territories, or more abstract solutions seeking to establish international norms, like protecting human rights. 

Forming a treaty recognizes the state's sovereignty, or its supreme established authority in a territory. This is because treaties are binding as international law. As such, agreements between two or more states are not inherently treaties unless the countries intend it to be so. For example, the UN general assembly declarations are not treaties because they are not binding. 

Definition of Treaty 

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties defines a ‘treaty’ as “an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation” in Article 2, section 1 a. A later convention added International Organizations as actors that could participate in a treaty. In essence, a treaty is any form of agreement between countries or IOs that are held accountable by international law. 


For treaties to be effective, they must be binding. This originated from a principle of international law, pacta sunt servanda, which is Latin for "agreements must be kept." The groundwork for modern treaties was laid out by that principle, and later by the 1648 Peace Treaties of Westphalia. These treaties recognized the right of sovereign nations to govern free from outside interference, which recognizes the sovereignty of other nations.

Later came the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in 1969, which became the framework to enforce treaties, interpret applications, amend them, suspend them, and more. Establishing this framework was essential for maintaining peace and security through friendly cooperation among nations. In 1986, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties between states and IOs or between IOs included actors beyond countries into the picture.

How It Works

Treaties are used in all types of actions. Political treaties may establish alliances between countries or peace talks. Economic agreements, such as tariffs, are classified as commercial treaties. Administrative treaties discuss the regulation of international organizations. International crimes, human rights, or trademark cases are under civil and criminal justice treaties. These agreements also act to codify international laws and set standards on a global stage. Issues that impact many different actors, such as processes for settling disputes, war conduct, or duties of the state, are solved in treaties.

In the current framework, modern treaties have different sections. A treaty usually has a preamble, articulating which actors are involved and the context of the situation. Next comes the articles, which state the formal agreement. A treaty ends with its completion day and signatures of parties involved. Sometimes, treaties outline a ratification process. Ratification is when states bring the agreement back to their local government for approval before enacting it into international law. Depending on the treaty, sometimes signing alone does not hold a state accountable for the agreement under international law. Often, treaties go into force after a certain number of ratifications or after a specific time to sign passes. 

If broken, treaties may be suspended or even terminated. A state found to be violating international law must stop, show that it will not repeat unlawful actions, and make reparations for the material and moral damage caused through their conduct. An outright breach of the contract can lead to sanctions such as trade embargos, severing diplomatic relations, or even armed forces to keep international peace. Action depends on the stipulations between the countries outlined in the agreement on how to proceed. 

Applying It

Treaties exist to enforce global cooperation by mediating disputes and enhancing legal liability. One such example is the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty, where the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and many other countries work together to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency monitors the agreement, and the UN Security Council enforces it. Treaties are vital in work that requires collective action, like climate change and human rights issues. For example, treaties affect what kinds of goods are traded between countries.  Without them, you might not even have access to chocolate if your country did not produce it! Agreements also enforce punishment for countries that break them, such as when human rights are not respected. Treaties enhance global cooperation and make our life easier by providing access to things we would not otherwise have.

Think Further

  1. What situations might cause actors to make treaties?
  2. How might countries hold each other accountable to keep agreements?
  3. What issues exist in the world that you think need to be addressed with a treaty? 


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Learn More

  1. Donaldson, Megan, The Survival of the Secret Treaty: Publicity, Secrecy and Legality in the International Order (January 1, 2017). University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 56/2017. Available at SSRN: or
  2. “Public International Law: Treaties.” Library Guides at University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 18 May 2020,
  3. Shaw, Malcolm. “Treaty.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Aug. 2019,
  4. The United Nations. “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.” Treaty Series, vol. 1155, May 1969