Foreign Treaties in the United States
For purposes of this section, a “foreign” treaty is an agreement between two or more countries not including the U.S. (For a discussion of treaties where the U.S. is a party, see “Treaties”).
This entry is divided into the following sections:
A. Research Strategies
B. Treaty Indexes
C. Online Databases
D. Locating Print Sources
E. Contacting Experts
F. Treaty Research Guides
Get foreign treaties when you have a citation. To pull a treaty with a citation:
- Find the full name of the publication cited. If you can’t figure out the name from the abbreviation you can (a) search the abbreviation in a good search engine and hope the answer pops up or (b) look it up in the reference books discussed in the “Abbreviations & Acronyms” entry of this Guide.
- Find a source for the full text. This can be an online database that can provide the full text (see below, Online Databases) or a library that holds the publication (see below, Locating Print Sources).
- If you can not find a helpful library or database, you can try to contact the publisher or any other government agency, organization, business or individual who would be likely to have the treaty.
- You could also just pop the citation and/or the name of the publication into a good database and see if the treaty pops up but, if it were that easy, you probably wouldn’t be reading these instructions.
Get foreign treaties when you don’t have a citation. If you don’t have a citation, your best bet may be to type whatever you know about the treaty into Google, another search engine and/or the databases discussed below in Online Databases. This can work well with recent and relatively important treaties, especially if you have the name or date of the treaty. Just be sure that you get the treaty from a reliable source. You may also have to check to see if the treaty you find has been amended and/or if it is still in force. If you can’t locate the treaty online, try contacting someone who can point you in the right direction (see this section on Contacting Experts, below).
Research treaties by subject/country/date/etc. Sometimes I have been asked to do real “treaty research,” such as finding all the environmental treaties among the countries of Central America or finding all the fishing treaties concluded in 1975. The treaty indexes discussed below can be tremendously helpful, if they are organized appropriately, and if they cover the time frame you are researching. You may need to search the databases discussed below to find more recent treaties. You may also want to consult an expert (see below) or any legal treatises, articles or other secondary materials that discuss the matter you are researching, including the subject-specific chapters of the ASIL Electronic Resource Guide.
B. Treaty Indexes
Treaty indexes are the traditional tools for researching treaties. They organize treaties in the way the Wests Digests organize judicial opinions.
You can use a treaty index to identify treaties on a particular subject, treaties signed by a particular country or both (e.g. the trade treaty between Spain and Tunisia). You can also use a treaty index to look up the exact name of a treaty, the date it was concluded, etc. Once you identify a treaty, the index will tell you where to get the full text — either by giving you a citation to a treaty set (which may be available in print or online) or a link to an online source.
Leading indexes for foreign treaties include:
- The FLARE Index to Treaties, which covers “over 2,000 of the most significant multilateral treaties and some bilateral treaties concluded between 1353 and the present, with details of where the full text of each treaty may be obtained in paper and, if available, electronic form on the internet” (from About the Flare Index to Treaties). To my knowledge, this is the only major treaty index that is updated nearly to the present.
- The U.N.’s Multilateral Treaties Deposited With the Secretary General database is designed to provide information on the status of multilateral treaties deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nation, but it is updated regularly and can be used as a treaty index.
- Multilateral Treaties: Index and Current Status (usually known as “Bowman and Harris”), is the leading treaties index for multilateral treaties concluded between 1856 and 1994. Produced by the Treaty Center at the University of Nottingham, Bowman and Harris remains useful for identifying and locating older multilateral treaties.
- The Multilateral Treaty Calendar is another major work covering multilateral treaties concluded from 1648 to the end of 1995. Treaties are published chronologically, so it helps to know the date the treaty was signed.
- The World Treaty Index is considered the best index for bilateral treaties concluded from 1900 to 1980.
- UK Treaties Online contains records of over 14,000 treaties involving the U.K. from 1835 to the present. The database is searchable, and there is a helpful page on Guidance For Users. For further guidance, you may also want to check out Guidance to the work of the FCO’s Treaty Section.
- For very old treaties, the Index Guide to Treaties: Based on Consolidated Series attempts to cover all known international treaties signed between 1648 and 1981.
Another Strategy: searching databases. You can use an online treaty databases to research treaties the same way you would use online case databases to research judicial opinions, by searching with keywords. You choose a database that should have what you want, work out your search, and then see what you get. Be sure that your results are appropriately comprehensive. If you are looking for a treaty in force, be sure the treaty you find has not been subsequently amended, rescinded or abandoned. You can find leading databases of foreign treaties below.
Additional Sources of Information: The list of Frequently-Cited Treaties and Other International Instruments posted by the University of Minnesota Law School Library provides citations for treaties frequently cited in law review articles, with selected links to the full text. For more information about treaty indexes, see the treaty research guides listed below.
C. Online Databases
1. General Collections: Following are some of the leading treaty collections that cover a broad range of subjects:
(1) International Legal Materials, a bi-monthly periodical published by The American Society of International Law, is available on Lexis back to 1962, (INTLAW;ILM) on Hein Online back to 1962 and on Westlaw back to 1980 (ILM). Highly recommended for relatively recent treaties.
(2) Lexis (call for assistance).
(3) EISIL posts significant treaties by subject across a broad range of subjects.
(4) Tuft’s Multilaterals Project posts major multilateral treaties.
(5) If the U.N. is the depository for the treaty, you can get the text from the United Nations Treaty Series, which includes most U.N. treaties since 1946. The UN Treaty Collection is also available by subscription through Hein Online.
(7) “Inter-American Treaties Approved Within the Framework of the OAS” are posted by the Organization of American States.
(8) UK Treaties Online provides the full text U.K. treaties published in the Treaty Series (i.e., treaties that entered into force) from 1892 to the present. Treaties that entered into force between 1997 and 2012 are available through the archived Treaty Command Papers and Explanatory Memoranda page. Those entered into force since 2013 are available here. For treaties that entered into force from from 1892 to 1996, first use the database search to locate the record for the treaty, then link from the record to the full text. Note: The database also contains records for many treaties that did not enter into force, but if you set a date range in the “Definitive entry into force” at the bottom of the search page, all the results should be available through either the database or the Treaty Command Papers page.
(9) The WorldLII International Treaties Collection lets you search through over two dozen treaty series, including the U.N. Treaties Series, the League of Nations Treaty Series, GLIN, APEC, ASEAN and many national series.
For well-annotated links to other general treaty collections, see the “International Treaties” section of Mirela Roznovschi’s Guide to Foreign and International Legal Databases, the Treaties section of Kelly Vinopal’s Researching Public International Law and/or Researching Treaties by the University of Minnesota Law School Library, as well as the other research guides listed below.
2. Subject-Specific Treaty Collections: Following are a few treaty resources I’ve found useful that cover just one subject area.
Environment: The Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators Service (ENTRI) and the UNEP’s Links to Environmental Convention Secretariats.
Intellectual Property: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) posts all the WIPO-administered treaties, with related information. European Union conventions on “Industrial Property” are published in volume four of the European Union Law Reporter. See also “Copyrights” and “Patent Cooperation Treaty.”
Tax: U.S. and foreign tax treaties are available through subscription services such as the Worldwide Tax Treaties by Tax Analysts, the Tax Treaties Database by the IBDF and RIA Worldwide Tax Law on Checkpoint. If you don’t have any of those subscriptions, Tax Analysts’ Worldwide Tax Treaties database is on Lexis (FEDTAX;TAWTT). For more information, see Tax Treaties here.
For more subject-specific treaty sites, see the
3. Gazettes: Most governments publish their new treaties in a periodical known as a “gazette” or an “official journal,” such as the Canada Gazette or the Official Journal of the European Union. If you are looking for a relatively obscure treaty, especially an obscure bilateral treaty, the gazettes of the countries involved may be the only place they are published.
Most countries post their gazettes online, so you can try to find them with search engines. Otherwise, use the sources discussed below in Locating Print Sources. If you can’t even identify the name of the country’s gazette (they are often published only in the country’s native language), you can look in the country pages near the end ofThe Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or use the other resources discussed in the “Foreign Laws” entry of this Guide. You could also try to contact someone who could point you in the right direction (see Section E, below).
4. National Treaty Collections: In addition to gazettes, many countries publish or post their national treaties in a treaty series, collection of national laws or government web site. You can look up the name of print collections in the List of Treaty Collectionsproduced by the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs. You can link to online collection through the UN’s list of treaty collections maintained by states.
D. Locating Print Sources
You can find most of the treaty indexes and other print materials discussed above at law libraries with strong collections of international law materials; search Worldcat to find a library near you.
Alternatively, if you know what you are looking for, you can get copies by calling the document delivery service at Columbia University (800-332-4529), New York University (212-998-6302), the Los Angeles County Law Library (213-785-2529), theBritish Library Document Supply Centre, Harvard University (provides document delivery only for other libraries) or another library with the relevant print index.
For rarer treaties, see if you can identify the organization that acts as the depository for the treaty, or the secretariat for the treaty, if one exists. Many depositories and secretariats post treaties on their web site, and you can call them if they don’t. For example, the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) posts a list of bilateral treaties in its collection.
E. Contacting Experts
There is no central source for locating experts on foreign treaties. Following are some places you are likely to find them.
- The embassies and consulates of the the parties to the treaty. See the “Embassies” entry of this Guide to get contact information.
- The relevant country’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
- The relevant foreign office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Abroad.
- The relevant state department, treaty desk or other government office of party to the treaty.
- Authors of legal books or articles discussing the topic.
- Advocacy groups or organizations that are involved in activities relating to the treaty.
If you’re super-stuck, try calling the U.S. State Department Treaty Desk the (202-647-1345) or the American Society of International Law Library (202-939-6005).
F. Other Treaty Research Guides
For more information on researching and retrieving foreign treaties, see:
- An Introduction to Sources for Treaty Research by Mark Engsberg;
- The Guide to Treaty Research by Simon Canick;
- The Guide to Foreign and International Legal Databases by Mirela Roznovschi;
- The International Treaties Guide by Radu D. Popa;
- The Treaties chapter of ASIL’s Researching Public International Law; and/or
- Searching for U.S. and International Treaties by Vincent Moyer.
Useful print sources include Germain’s Transnational Law Research: A Guide for Attorneys and Accidental Tourist on the New Frontier: An Introductory Guide to Global Legal Research.