Historically, many different terms have emerged for designating the rights and duties agreed between nations, and their usage in practice has never been precisely determined.
Although these instruments differ in name, they have all share common features and are generally subject to the same rule in international law. The terminology is not, however, arbitrary, for the word chosen for a particular agreement indicates the desired objective and/or implies the limits of its sphere of action.
Thus the term “convention” tends to be applied, at least in recent history, to formal multilateral agreements among a large number of states. Conventions are generally open to membership by the international community as a whole or at least a large number of countries. Those instruments that are negotiated under the umbrella of an international organization are normally referred to as conventions.
The word "treaty" has recently been used less frequently for international instruments, with other terms being preferred. Most international instruments now tend to be called an “agreement”, and “treaty” is typically reserved for very important matters. As a rule, treaties are sealed, as well as signed, and require ratification to become effective.
The term “declaration" is used for various international instruments that are, at least in most cases, not legally binding. The word is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create legally binding obligations but only want to proclaim their joint commitment to achieve specific objectives. This does not preclude, however, a “declaration” from being an agreement intended to become binding under international law. There are some declarations that originally had no binding force but, over time, became established as international customary law and can now be regarded as universal law. A well-known example is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
Other related terms include “memorandum of understanding” and “protocol”. The former suggests a non-binding common line of action and the latter is also often used for less formal arrangements than “treaty” or “convention”.
Arms control describes efforts to contain arms races between states and regulate build-ups of military capabilities. This may involve arrangements to monitor weapon numbers as well as troop levels and their equipment and to monitor weapon production (as well as upgrading and development), stockpiling and deployment.
The aim of arms control is to avoid war, to limit damage in conflicts and to reduce military expenditure. Control can be achieved by various instruments, but especially arms control agreements and verification measures.
Arms control agreements
Arms control agreements are bilateral or multilateral agreements that, on the one hand, seek to reduce existing weapons or troops and, on the other, build mutual trust by arranging reciprocal monitoring and inspection and thus defusing conflicts. Arms control agreements can deal with various arms categories, the most widely known being nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons and chemical or biological warfare agents.
Arms Trade Treaty
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is designed to regulate the trade in conventional weapons, i.e. their import, export and transfer.
This multilateral treaty was formally adopted in 2013 but has still not yet entered into force. As soon as fifty countries have ratified the treaty it will become legally effective. Its core purpose is to set global standards for arms exports, which covers not only large-scale weapons systems but also, importantly, small arms. Then state parties undertake not to approve any item of arms export if, at the time a license is granted, there is a reasonable assumption that the weapon in question will be used by its recipients for genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians under protection, or other war crimes, as defined in the relevant international treaties signed by the respective party.
Biological Weapons Convention
The international Biological Weapons Convention (full title: Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) Weapons and Toxin Weapons and their Destruction - outlaws the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons for military use. The agreement – also known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) – was created by an initiative of the UN Member States and opened for signature in 1972. It entered into force in 1975 and can be considered a further step towards the elimination of biological weapons—the first having been the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that only banned the use of biological weapons as a method of warfare—forbidding research (with the exception of defensive research, see Module 6), production and stockpiling of these weapons.
All the signatory states also undertake to destroy any bioweapon stocks they may possess A drawback of the Convention is that no verification measures have been agreed on. It has also been impossible so far to incorporate an additional protocol on disclosure requirements and controls into the Convention.
CFE & Adapted CFE Treaty
The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) was signed in 1990 by the member states of NATO and the Warsaw Pact states respectively. The Treaty became effective in 1992. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact demanded an updated treaty text, but the resulting Adapted CFE Treaty has not yet received sufficient ratification to enter into force. The treaties set limits on the presence of armed forces and on capabilities in five weapons categories (battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, artillery systems, combat aircraft and attack helicopters) right across Europe (between the Atlantic and the Urals).
Chemical Weapons Convention
The international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons. The Convention was adopted in 1992 and became effective in 1997. Every signatory country undertook to declare any stockpiles and relevant munitions and production equipment they may have and destroy them by the end of 2012. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague supervises this process.
The term “Cold War” refers to the hostile situation that developed from 1948 between Western nations under the leadership of the United States and the Eastern bloc under Soviet leadership. T he conflict primarily took the form of threats, propaganda and an arms race involving nuclear weapons. Each side hoped to impress the other by amassing arms and thus influence policymaking. Apart from the arms build-up itself, there was never a critical armed clash between the superpowers. Rather, both sides engaged in proxy warfare in third party countries, using them to gain a stronger position in a game of global power politics. The Cold War took place, depending on which historical account we read, from 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is an international agreement aimed at outlawing all testing of atomic weapons. It has not yet entered into force.
Compliance with the treaty is controlled by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), established specifically for this task. At the time of writing (YEAR), a large majority of states have ratified the treaty, but key signatures are still missing, including countries in possession of nuclear technology (44 states according to the IAEA).
Confidence-building measures (CBMs) can be a means of achieving arms reductions.
For confidence-building is aimed at stabilizing relations between states and easing tensions, overcoming mistrust and fostering cooperation. Measures of this kind became popular after the CFE Treaty in the 1970s. The arrangements can smooth interactions between states, create greater transparency by notifying the other side of planned activities, and ensure better communication. One of the best examples of confidence building can be seen in the arrangements agreed under the Open Skies Treaty.
Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space
The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974 and entered into force in 1976.
Countries that are party to the convention undertake to share key information on any objects they have placed in space. The data includes the name of the responsible state, a registration number for any space object, the date and location of its launch, its orbital parameters and the object’s general function. An obligation to provide further information, such as exact position, status of object and time of re-entry, is under discussion.
Dayton Peace Agreement
The Dayton Peace Agreement (officially designated as the General Framework Agreement for Peace for Bosnia and Herzegovina–or GFAP) was concluded in 1995 between the parties fighting in the Bosnia War (1992–1995): Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. The peace agreement established the terms for independence and demarcated the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and determined its political divisions and structures of government. It was concluded under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and through mediation by the United States. It can be regarded as a significant example of a regional confidence-building and arms control arrangement because it succeeded in considerably reducing weapon stockpiles and troop numbers by the parties to the conflict.
Disarmament describes processes of reducing military capacities and covers both weapons systems and military personnel. These processes can be pursued unilaterally, agreed between two states or carried out simultaneously by multiple states.
In general we also designate measures to control or reduce armaments as “disarmament”. Among the biggest ever disarmament measures were those taken at the end of the Cold War arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union to remove inter alia medium-range nuclear missiles.
The Geneva Conventions are a set of agreements, most importantly those of 1949, governing the protection of civilians and treatment of combatants in wars and violent conflicts.
The original four conventions cover the treatment of: sick and wounded members of armed forces in the field; wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea; and prisoners of war and civilians in times of war. Additions to the conventions in recent decades deal with conduct in internal conflicts within a country and the introduction of protective signs for medical services. The Geneva Conventions set out the most important standards of international humanitarian law, even if, in practice, the rules have been repeatedly flouted during wars and conflicts.
The term “Global Zero” refers to the aim of creating a world without nuclear arms. The term was coined in the context of talks on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was eventually signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in Washington in 1987. Initially, the concept only applied to short-and medium-range missiles but is now used more widely in the literature to mean a policy of scrapping all nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), headquartered in Vienna, was established in 1957 as an independent agency, although it is associated by treaty with the United Nations. Its mission is to promote the use of nuclear power worldwide on condition that it is only used in the interests of “peace, health and prosperity”.
Applications of nuclear technology are to be carefully monitored and military uses constrained. If the Agency identifies a threat to international security it is duty-bound to report its findings to the UN General Assembly.
International humanitarian law
International humanitarian law is an attempt to uphold elementary rights in the otherwise lawless state of war.
It covers all provisions designed to create the greatest possible protection of human beings, buildings, infrastructure and the environment in a war or armed conflict. The provisions consist of both written legal agreements and unwritten principles (international customary law) that enjoy universal validity. Citizens of a country that is party to a relevant treaty can, if accused of violating international humanitarian law, be brought before the International Criminal Court or a case-specific war crimes tribunal.
As a general term, “international law” describes the legal order within which states and international organizations maintain relations with one another.
It generally refers to sets of rules, various agreements, treaties and conventions, and certain norms (legal norms) and customary rights that apply to states that have formed an international community of nations. Depending on the scope of application of the negotiated international laws, we distinguish between “law of peace” and “law of war”.
In the field of international law there is no supreme legal organ to punish violations, so the execution of law lies essentially in the actual practice of respecting law and in mutual trust. International law is limited in its application to international organizations, to specific groups (e.g. minorities) and to individuals (e.g. under human rights).
International law and national law are two different legal systems. Only if national law has incorporated international law in domestic legislation or in the national constitution is the latter binding within a state. Individual international laws set out rules that apply among large numbers of states and organizations in various fields, including international humanitarian law. In Germany, Article 25 of the Grundgesetz (German constitution) establishes that the general rules of international law are an integral part of federal law.
Headquartered in Brussels, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a military as well as economic and political alliance between the United States and European countries (plus Canada and Turkey).
The alliance was founded in 1949 under US-American leadership and comprises 29 countries at the time of writing (02.2018). During the Cold War, NATO became the counterforce to the Warsaw Pact. Since the end of the East-West antagonism in 1991 NATO has operated more widely out-of-area and continues to serve as a key focus of military, economic, social and cultural cooperation.
Nuclear-weapon-free zones are spaces in which no nuclear weapons of mass destruction may be kept.
There are a total of eight agreements to establish this status, five of which are international zones (Tlatelolco, Rarotonga, Bangkok, Pelindaba and Semei), one for Mongolia, one for the territory of the former East Germany (under the terms of the 2+4 Treaty, which enabled German unification) and one for the Antarctic (under the Antarctic Treaty). The first zone agreement came into force in 1961 and others followed until 2009. Europe cannot become nuclear-free as long as France, the United Kingdom and the United States have weapons stationed on the continent.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty - NPT) is an international Treaty that entered into force in 1970.
Its signatory states undertake not to seek possession of nuclear arms and not to pass on any knowledge or technology needed to build nuclear weapons. The states parties are also committed to using any nuclear facilities they may have for peaceful purposes only and to dispense with any existing nuclear weapons.
The Treaty recognizes five countries that had produced and tested nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices before 1 January 1967, as nuclear-weapon states: China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States. They have been granted the right to possess nuclear weapons, under the condition that they reduce their stocks. All other states are only permitted to acquire nuclear technology and material on the condition that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) may carry out on-site inspections to ensure that their nuclear programmes are in compliance, i.e. serve exclusively peaceful purposes.
Three countries that are in possession of nuclear weapons have not ratified the Treaty: India, Israel and Pakistan. North Korea left the NPT in 2003 while India, Israel and Pakistan are tolerated and/or indirectly recognized as nuclear weapons states outside of the Treaty inasmuch as they have still been treated as commercial partners for civil nuclear projects. . This is mirrored in the fact that they are trading partners for civilian nuclear projects and also shows one conflict potential of the NPT. Another potential for conflict is the unwillingness of the nuclear weapon states to reduce their stocks.
Open Skies Treaty
The Open Skies Treaty is a cooperative arms control agreement that came into force on 1 January 2002. It enables participants to fly over other member states along previously agreed routes for the purpose of photographic, radar and infrared surveillance. The participating states undertake to permit mutual aerial inspection flights on agreed terms concerning the number of permissible flights conducted by each party and the methods used. The Open Skies Treaty proved an important instrument for strengthening trust between NATO and the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Outer Space Treaty
The Outer Space Treaty (in full: The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies ) entered into force in 1967. The Treaty rules that no celestial body can be appropriated by a state and that space must be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. Moreover, a country is liable for any damages arising from objects it has put into space. One problem with the Treaty is that it does not define where airspace ends and space begins.
Ratification / signing / accession
States can sign, ratify and accede to an agreement in international law.
An agreement is open to signature after the precise wording of the text has been settled. The date from which an agreement enters into force, i.e. becomes legally binding, depends on the ratification terms, which often specify a minimum number of ratifying states. Ratification means that a state incorporates the legal content of an agreement into its domestic law. Ratification is usually a matter for the national parliament to decide, but in some cases it is put to a referendum. This procedural hurdle means ratification can take a considerable time, and in some cases it will fail. If an international agreement has already become effective, other countries may still join if they accept its terms as a state party. This step is known as accession. From a legal standpoint, accession is equivalent to ratification.
The main types of space objects of relevance to international law are satellites, probes, landers (space probes for landing on a planet), space vehicles, space station components and launchers.
All objects that have been launched into space are thus space objects. Any state registering these objects must accept liability for any negative impacts caused by their falling to Earth or crashing in orbit. To this end, all space objects are recorded in a database with details of names, launch locations, positions and functions.
UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW; in full: Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects) was adopted in 1980 and entered into force in 1983. The convention consists of six protocols, which every state is asked to ratify.
A state must ratify at least two protocols to gain ratification status. The individual protocols cover a ban on, or restriction of, non-detectable fragments, land mines, booby-traps, incendiary weapons, and blinding laser weapons as well as an obligation on all warring parties to assist in the clearance of explosive remnants. Protocol VI on cluster munition has not yet been incorporated.
UN General Assembly
The General Assembly is the United Nations’ main deliberative organ and represents all the member states worldwide. It convenes in annual sessions at the UN headquarters in New York. The General Assembly examines and approves the UN budget and discusses key issues of international importance. Each country may send up to five representatives to this body. Committees and working groups deal in detail with specific topics. Each member state has one vote, irrespective of its population size or GDP.
Verification measures/arms control mechanisms
Verification measures are controls conducted under an agreement by an independent organization or reciprocally by the states parties themselves.
The control measures can be implemented via an exchange of information, by technical means (sensors, cameras, seals, satellites, etc.), through on-site inspections (announced and/or unannounced) or by sending observers. Such measures should be effective, proportionate and swift, with the aim of quickly discovering any violations. Verification measures also act as confidence-building measures and help to foster cooperation between states.
The Vienna Document is a binding political agreement between the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the implementation of confidence-building measures to strengthen security across Europe. It provides for an annual exchange of military information about forces located across Europa (from the Atlantic to the Urals).
It is also intended to reduce risks by arranging notification of unusual military activities, observations, exchanges on annually planned activities, inspections and evaluation visits.
The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, known as the Warsaw Pact, brought together eight countries—Albania, Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Hungary—in a military and political alliance.
The Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO), as it was also called, was loyal to the Soviet Union and formed a counter-alliance to NATO, led by the United States. The Soviet Union stationed troops in all the member states both as a defence against external forces (NATO) and as a guarantee, internally, of Soviet hegemony, even using troops to quell uprisings in situations like the Prague Spring. During the Cold War, the two military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, became repeatedly involved in hostile stand-offs. Albania left the Warsaw Pact in 1961, and the alliance finally came to an end in 1991 in the post-Cold War era.