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This guide was originally created by Caitlin Hunter in 2018 and is regularly updated by the library staff. 

How Treaties Are Passed

Treaties are passed in the following stages:

  • Negotiation
  • Signing
  • Ratification- Some treaties provide that parties are bound by the treaty as soon as they sign it. However, most treaties specify that parties are not bound until they submit a second document indicating their consent to be bound, called ratification. There are a few common variations on ratification:
    • Accession- Consent to be bound by a party that missed the window to sign the treaty.
    • Acceptance or approval- Implies consent to be bound that is otherwise different in some way from the usual ratification process.
    • Reservations- Statements that a party does not consider itself bound by part of the treaty. Most treaties allow any reservation that does not defeat the purpose of the treaty but a few only allow specified reservations and an even smaller number do not allow reservations at all.
    • Declarations- Statements explaining how the country interprets key provisions of the treaty. A softer alternative to reservations. 
  • Entry into force or effectiveness- No country is actually bound by a treaty until the treaty enters into force (becomes effective). The treaty itself will specify when it enters into force, either as a specific date or set of circumstances (e.g. 6 months after being ratified by 2 countries.)

The procedure for passing treaties is itself governed by a treaty, known as the:

Types of Treaties

Treaties may be:

  • Bilateral- between two parties.
  • Multilateral- between three or more parties.

Not surprisingly, the more parties there are to a treaty, the easier it usually is to find.

Treaties go by a dizzying variety of names, including accord, charter, concordat, constitution (of an international organization), covenant, final act, or pact. Certain names imply certain types of treaties:

  • Convention- Generally implies a multilateral treaty setting forth broad rules of international law.
  • Protocol- Generally implies a shorter, more specific treaty intended as an optional supplement or amendment to a larger multilateral treaty.
  • Exchange of notes- A bilateral treaty accomplished by the exchange of documents from each country, rather than the signing of a single treaty. The text of the treaty consists of the exchanged documents, rather than a single consolidated text.

U.S. treaties are further divided into two types:

  • Advice and consent or Article II treaties- treaties submitted to the Senate for their formal advice and consent, as established in Article II of the Constitution.
  • Executive agreements- agreements signed by the President without the formal advice and consent of the Senate, further divided into:
    • Congressional-executive agreements- agreements authorized either before or after the fact by a statute passed by Congress.
    •  Agreements pursuant to treaties- agreements authorized by prior treaties.
    • Presidential or sole executive agreements- agreements made under the president's own authority, without the involvement of Congress.

Under international law, it is is generally irrelevant whether the U.S. passed a treaty through advice and consent or as an executive agreement. However, the distinction sometimes matters when locating the full-text of the treaty and matters when researching the history of a treaty's passage.

For more information on how U.S. treaties are passed, see the comprehensive study prepared by the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service at the request of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and published as: