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Legal research guide: Public International Law: Treaties

Just as statutes are the main source of domestic law in Australia, treaties have become the key source of law in international law. A treaty is a formally signed and ratified agreement between two or more nations or sovereigns.

It is important to remember that treaties do not come into force when they are signed. Most treaties will have a clause which specifies the requirements of the treaty entering into force. The clause may include a ratification date and a requirement that a certain number of parties have ratified before it can become law.

See the UN Treaty Handbook glossary for definitions of treaty terminology.

igned treaty

Official signed and sealed copy of a judgment of the International Court of Justice. Photograph: Jeroen Bouman - Courtesy of the ICJ. All rights reserved

Treaties can also be referred to as agreements, conventions, covenents and protocols. All of these terms have the same legal status but are not necessarily interchangeable. A protocol has the same legal standing as a treaty but is generally used to amend, supplement or clarify an existing treaty. The Kyoto Protocol's parent treaty is the Convention on Climate Change. Parties of the parent agreement can choose to ratify the protocol or not.

Definitions of key treaty terms and a glossary of terms relating to treaty actions is available from the United Nations Treaty Collection.

To locate a United Nations Treaty use the United Nations Treaty Series from Hein Online. This database contains the full text of over 158,000 UN Treaties and will tell you if any journal articles have discussed the treaty.

If you cannot find a treaty here it may not yet be "in force" You will need to look at the International Legal Materials (ILM), Hein Online or use the Australian Treaty Series (ATS) available from AUSTLII.


For more information on how to cite a treaty or other international legal materials refer to the Australian Guide to Legal Citation.

The Treaty Series Citation consists of a volume number, treaty series citation abbreviation and page number. For United Nations treaties, the volume number can be found on the UNTS homepage for the treaty and the page number can be located by opening the full text of the treaty.

Example Agreement regarding the Transfer of the Administration of Justice in the Territories of Northern Slesvig, Denmark - Germany, signed 12 July 1921, 8 LNTS 397 (entered into force 17 January 1922) art 1
Element Treaty Title Parties' Names

Date Opened for

Signature or Signed

Treaty Series Date of Entry into Force Pinpoint
Rule 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.3 8.7

Banner image sources: Image 1, 2, 4, & 5 licensed under CC0 Public Domain license. Image , Image 3 licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.


 Except for logos or where otherwise indicated, content in this guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.