Jul 14, 2011


by Author © Walter Gehr 2001-2010


Nowadays as in the past, treaties play a fundamental role in international relations. The present website aims at offering to an interested public an introduction to international treaty law, i.e. the law of the treaties concluded between States in written form and governed by public international law.

In proceeding by deduction, the author's intention is to present international treaty law by starting from its inherent principles as embodied in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. This convention has entered into force on 27 January 1980 and has been ratified by more than 100 countries.


Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, considered by some as the "Bible of the Poor" of those who seek quick answers despite of the complexity of international relations, constitutes nevertheless a good starting point for the understanding of the sources of international law. According to this article, international law finds its origin in the following three sources:

      - international conventions of general or particular nature;
      - international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law;
      - the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations.

Most international law experts would rush to add the "unilateral acts" to these three sources of law and to declare that Article 38 of the Statute has omitted to mention these unilateral acts for which the United Nations' International Law Commission (ILC) has elaborated Guiding Principles in 2006. Contrary to this opinion, other international lawyers would maintain that these unilateral acts constitute specific expressions of the will of States leading eventually to agreements which are then governed by the rules applicable to international conventions.

Finally, the idea of justice and equity originating in the philosophy of natural law is not to be discarded as a source of international law, since it is the opinion of the International Court of Justice itself that whatever the legal argumentation of the judge, his or her decisions have to be just and in that sense must correspond to justice and equity. Moreover, the judges of the International Court of Justice are expressly authorized to decide a case ex aequo et bono, if the parties agree thereto, i.e. to found their judgements on arguments of equity (Article 38 (2) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice).

International treaty law as codified by Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 is open for considerations of justice too (Preambular para. 4 and 5 and Article 44 (3)). Moreover, the concept of "jus cogens" seems also to be an angle of incidence for natural law ideas.

Since, on the basis of their sovereignty and therefore independence, the equality of all States constitutes the theoretical foundation of international relations and although public international law, by definition, does not belong to civil law, international legal debates are often reminiscent of the discussions known in the latter area, in particular in the context of the law of contracts.

However, the analogy with the law of contract ends where measures are taken on the basis of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. Although they are foreseen in an international treaty - in particular by Article 25 of the Charter - these measures deserve to be highlighted because of the legal obligations they impose to the whole world, their political significance and the remarkable development they have undergone since the Gulf War of 1991. The measures taken by the Security Council and which are expressly based on Chapter VII of the Charter encompass not only military as well as economic sanctions against

      - certain States (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Yougoslavia, Sierra
        Leone etc.)
      - or insurgents (Angola's UNITA, see resolution
        1173/1998 of 12 June 1998) or even political parties in
        government (the Afghan faction of the Taliban, see res.
        1267/1999 of 15 October 1999),
but also

      - the creation of special tribunal to prosecute war crimes or
        crimes against humanity in the territory of the former
        Yougoslavia (res. 827/1993 of 25 May 1993) and in Ruanda
        (res. 955/1994 of 8 November 1994)
      - or of special administrative zones like in East Timor (see
        res. 1272/1999 of 25 October 1999) or in Kosovo (see
        res.1244/1999 of 10 June 1999)

        as well as

      - measures against terrorism in general (res. 1373/2001
        of 28 September 2001).  

These sources of international law are supplemented by two subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law (Article 38 (1)(d) of the Statute), i.e. by

      - judicial decisions (although even the decisions of the
        International Court of Justice have binding force only between the
        parties and in respect of the particular cases submitted to the
        Court - Article 59 of the Statute) and
      - the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the
        various nations.

This website, for its part, is devoted to the international law of treaties as codified in the Vienna Convention. The principles of this convention as well as their application constitute its main subject-matter.

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