This glossary is intended as a general guide and is not presumed to be exhaustive
The instruments of "acceptance" or "approval" of a treaty have the same legal effect as ratification and consequently express the consent of a state to be bound by a treaty. In the practice of certain states acceptance and approval have been used instead of ratification when, at a national level, constitutional law does not require the treaty to be ratified by the head of state.
[Arts.2 (1) (b) and 14 (2), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
"Accession" is the act whereby a state accepts the offer or the opportunity to become a party to a treaty already negotiated and signed by other states. It has the same legal effect as ratification. Accession usually occurs after the treaty has entered into force. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his function as depositary, has also accepted accessions to some conventions before their entry into force. The conditions under which accession may occur and the procedure involved depend on the provisions of the treaty. A treaty might provide for the accession of all other states or for a limited and defined number of states. In the absence of such a provision, accession can only occur where the negotiating states were agreed or subsequently agree on it in the case of the state in question.
[Arts.2 (1) (b) and 15, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
"Act of formal confirmation" is used as an equivalent for the term "ratification" when an international organization expresses its consent to be bound to a treaty.
[Arts.2 (1) (b bis) and 14, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties between States and International Organizations or between International Organizations 1986]
"Adoption" is the formal act by which the form and content of a proposed treaty text are established. As a general rule, the adoption of the text of a treaty takes place through the expression of the consent of the states participating in the treaty-making process. Treaties that are negotiated within an international organization will usually be adopted by a resolution of a representative organ of the organization whose membership more or less corresponds to the potential participation in the treaty in question. A treaty can also be adopted by an international conference which has specifically been convened for setting up the treaty, by a vote of two thirds of the states present and voting, unless, by the same majority, they have decided to apply a different rule.
[Art.9, Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties 1969]
The term "amendment" refers to the formal alteration of treaty provisions affecting all the parties to the particular agreement. Such alterations must be effected with the same formalities that attended the original formation of the treaty. Many multilateral treaties lay down specific requirements to be satisfied for amendments to be adopted. In the absence of such provisions, amendments require the consent of all the parties.
[Art.40, Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties 1969]
The term "authentication" refers to the procedure whereby the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive. Once a treaty has been authenticated, states cannot unilaterally change its provisions. If states which negotiated a given treaty do not agree on specific procedures for authentication, a treaty will usually be authenticated by signature, signature ad referendum or the initialling by the representatives of those states.
[Art.10, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
If, after the authentication of a text, the signatory and contracting states are agreed that it contains an error, it can be corrected by initialling the corrected treaty text, by executing or exchanging an instrument containing the correction or by executing the corrected text of the whole treaty by the same procedure as in the case of the original text. If there is a depositary, the depositary must communicate the proposed corrections to all signatory and contracting states. In the UN practice, the Secretary-General, in his function as depositary, informs all parties to a treaty of the errors and the proposal to correct it. If, on the expiry of an appropriate time-limit, no objections are raised by the signatory and contracting states, the depositary circulates a proces-verbal of rectification and causes the corrections to be effected in the authentic text(s).
[Art.79, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Sometimes states make "declarations" as to their understanding of some matter or as to the interpretation of a particular provision. Unlike reservations, declarations merely clarify the state's position and do not purport to exclude or modify the legal effect of a treaty. Usually, declarations are made at the time of the deposit of the corresponding instrument or at the time of signature.
The term "declaration" is used for various international instruments. However, declarations are not always legally binding. The term is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create binding obligations but merely want to declare certain aspirations. An example is the 1992 Rio Declaration. Declarations can however also be treaties in the generic sense intended to be binding at international law. It is therefore necessary to establish in each individual case whether the parties intended to create binding obligations. Ascertaining the intention of the parties can often be a difficult task. Some instruments entitled "declarations" were not originally intended to have binding force, but their provisions may have reflected customary international law or may have gained binding character as customary law at a later stage. Such was the case with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Declarations that are intended to have binding effects could be classified as follows:
When the treaty is not subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, "definitive signature" establishes the consent of the state to be bound by the treaty. Most bilateral treaties dealing with more routine and less politicized matters are brought into force by definitive signature, without recourse to the procedure of ratification.
[Art.12, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
After a treaty has been concluded, the written instruments, which provide formal evidence of consent to be bound, and also reservations and declarations, are placed in the custody of a depositary. Unless the treaty provides otherwise, the deposit of the instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession establishes the consent of a state to be bound by the treaty. For treaties with a small number of parties, the depositary will usually be the government of the state on whose territory the treaty was signed. Sometimes various states are chosen as depositaries. Multilateral treaties usually designate an international organization or the Secretary-General of the United Nations as depositaries. The depositary must accept all notifications and documents related to the treaty, examine whether all formal requirements are met, deposit them, register the treaty and notify all relevant acts to the parties concerned.
[Arts.16, 76 and 77, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Typically, the provisions of the treaty determine the date on which the treaty enters into force. Where the treaty does not specify a date, there is a presumption that the treaty is intended to come into force as soon as all the negotiating states have consented to be bound by the treaty. Bilateral treaties may provide for their entry into force on a particular date, upon the day of their last signature, upon exchange of the instruments of ratification or upon the exchange of notifications. In cases where multilateral treaties are involved, it is common to provide for a fixed number of states to express their consent for entry into force. Some treaties provide for additional conditions to be satisfied, e.g., by specifying that a certain category of states must be among the consenters. The treaty may also provide for an additional time period to elapse after the required number of countries have expressed their consent or the conditions have been satisfied. A treaty enters into force for those states which gave the required consent. A treaty may also provide that, upon certain conditions having been met, it shall come into force provisionally.
[Art.24, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
States may express their consent to be bound by an "exchange of letters/notes". The basic characteristic of this procedure is that the signatures do appear not on one letter or note but on two separate letters or notes. The agreement therefore lies in the exchange of both letters or notes, each of the parties having in their possession one letter or note signed by the representative of the other party. In practice, the second letter or note, usually the letter or note in response, will typically reproduce the text of the first. In a bilateral treaty, letters or notes may also be exchanged to indicate that all necessary domestic procedures have been completed.
An "exchange of notes" is a record of a routine agreement, that has many similarities with the private law contract. The agreement consists of the exchange of two documents, each of the parties being in the possession of the one signed by the representative of the other. Under the usual procedure, the accepting State repeats the text of the offering State to record its assent. The signatories of the letters may be government Ministers, diplomats or departmental heads. The technique of exchange of notes is frequently resorted to, either because of its speedy procedure, or, sometimes, to avoid the process of legislative approval.
[Art.13, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
"Full powers" means a document emanating from the competent authority of a state designating a person or persons to represent the state for negotiating, adopting, authenticating the text of a treaty, expressing the consent of a state to be bound by a treaty, or for accomplishing any other act with respect to that treaty. Heads of State, Heads of Government and Ministers for Foreign Affairs are considered as representing their state for the purpose of all acts relating to the conclusion of a treaty and do not need to present full powers. Heads of diplomatic missions do not need to present full powers for the purpose of adopting the text of a treaty between the accrediting state and the state to which they are accredited. Likewise, representatives accredited by states to an international conference or to an international organization or one of its organs do not need to present full powers for the purpose of adopting the text of a treaty in that conference, organization or organ.
[Art.2 (1) (c) and Art.7 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
The term "modification" refers to the variation of certain treaty provisions only as between particular parties of a treaty, while in their relation to the other parties the original treaty provisions remain applicable. If the treaty is silent on modifications, they are allowed only if the modifications do not affect the rights or obligations of the other parties to the treaty and do not contravene the object and the purpose of the treaty.
[Art.41, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
The term "notification" refers to a formality through which a state or an international organization communicates certain facts or events of legal importance. Notification is increasingly resorted to as a means of expressing final consent. Instead of opting for the exchange of documents or deposit, states may be content to notify their consent to the other party or to the depositary. However, all other acts and instruments relating to the life of a treaty may also call for notifications.
[Arts.16 (c), 78 etc,. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Any signatory or contracting state has the option of objecting to a reservation, inter alia, if, in its opinion, the reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. The objecting state may further declare that its objection has the effect of precluding the entry into force of the treaty as between objecting and reserving states.
[Art.20-23, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
The growing use of provisional application clauses in treaties is a consequence of the need felt to give effect to treaty obligations prior to a state?s formal ratification of/accession to a treaty. The obligations relating to provisional application are undertaken by a conscious voluntary act of the state consistent with its domestic legal framework.
Provisional application of a treaty that has entered into force
The provisional application of a treaty that has entered into force may occur when a state undertakes to give effect to the treaty obligations provisionally although its domestic procedures for ratification/accession have not yet been completed. The intention of the state would be to ratify/accede to the treaty once its domestic legal requirements have been met. Provisional application may be terminated at any time. In contrast, a state which has consented to be bound by a treaty through ratification/accession or definitive signature, is governed by the rules on withdrawal specified in the treaty concerned (Arts. 54, 56, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969).
[Art. 25, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Provisional application of a treaty that has not entered into force
Provisional application of a treaty that has not entered into force may occur when a state notifies that it would give effect to the legal obligations specified in that treaty provisionally. These legal obligations are undertaken by a conscious voluntary act of the state consistent with its domestic legal framework. Provisional application may be terminated at any time. In contrast, a state which has consented to be bound by a treaty through ratification/ accession or definitive signature, is governed by the rules on withdrawal specified in the treaty concerned (Arts. 54, 56, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969).
Provisional application may continue even after the entry into force of the treaty in relation to a state applying the treaty provisionally until that state has ratified it. Provisional application terminates if a state notifies the other states among which the treaty is being applied provisionally of its intention of not becoming a party to the treaty.
[Art. 25 (2), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
There are also an increasing number of treaties which include provisions for provisional entry into force. Such treaties provide mechanisms for entry into force provisionally, should the formal criteria for entry into force not be met within a given period. Provisional entry into force of a treaty may also occur when a number of parties to a treaty which has not yet entered into force, decide to apply the treaty as if it had entered into force. Once a Treaty has entered into force provisionally, it is binding on the parties which agreed to bring it into force provisionally.
The nature of the legal obligations resulting from provisional entry into force would appear to be the same as the legal obligations in a treaty that has entered into force, as any other result would create an uncertain legal situation. It is the criteria for formal entry into force that have not been met but the legal standard of the obligations remains.
[Art. 25 (1), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Ratification defines the international act whereby a state indicates its consent to be bound to a treaty if the parties intended to show their consent by such an act. In the case of bilateral treaties, ratification is usually accomplished by exchanging the requisite instruments, while in the case of multilateral treaties the usual procedure is for the depositary to collect the ratifications of all states, keeping all parties informed of the situation. The institution of ratification grants states the necessary time-frame to seek the required approval for the treaty on the domestic level and to enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to that treaty.
[Arts.2 (1) (b), 14 (1) and 16, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations provides that "every treaty and every international agreement entered into by any Member of the United Nations after the present Charter comes into force shall as soon as possible be registered with the Secretariat and published by it". Treaties or agreements that are not registered cannot be invoked before any organ of the United Nations. Registration promotes transparency and the availability of texts of treaties to the public. Article 102 of the Charter and its predecessor, Article 18 of the Pact of the League of Nations, have their origin in one of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points in which he outlined his idea of the League of Nations: "Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always openly and in the public view".
[Art.80, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
A reservation is a declaration made by a state by which it purports to exclude or alter the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that state. A reservation enables a state to accept a multilateral treaty as a whole by giving it the possibility not to apply certain provisions with which it does not want to comply. Reservations can be made when the treaty is signed, ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to. Reservations must not be incompatible with the object and the purpose of the treaty. Furthermore, a treaty might prohibit reservations or only allow for certain reservations to be made.
[Arts.2 (1) (d) and 19-23, Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties 1969]
Revision has basically the same meaning as amendment. However, some treaties provide for a revision additional to an amendment (i.e., Article 109 of the Charter of the United Nations). In that case, the term "revision" refers to an overriding adoption of the treaty to changed circumstances, whereas the term "amendment" refers only to a change of singular provisions.
A representative may sign a treaty "ad referendum", i.e., under the condition that the signature is confirmed by his state. In this case, the signature becomes definitive once it is confirmed by the responsible organ.
[Art.12 (2) (b), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]
Where the signature is subject to ratification, acceptance or approval, the signature does not establish the consent to be bound. However, it is a means of authentication and expresses the willingness of the signatory state to continue the treaty-making process. The signature qualifies the signatory state to proceed to ratification, acceptance or approval. It also creates an obligation to refrain, in good faith, from acts that would defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty.
[Arts.10 and 18, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969]