There are different types of international legal instruments. Binding instruments, such as treaties or conventions, are signed by diplomatic representatives of participating states. They must be ratified through the domestic process of each state. Nonbinding instruments, such as declarations, standards, or models, are designed to suggest good practices and are aspirational.   

Signatories to international treaties may add clarifying language or reservations about how they will interpret and implement a treaty and, in some countries, must pass a domestic law to authorize implementation. In the United States, treaty ratification is a constitutional process involving negotiation, the President’s agreement to the terms of the treaty, and the advice and consent of the Senate. The United States often adds reservations to human rights treaties, including declarations that the treaty is not self-executing or that the United States opts out of certain provisions. Congress must pass additional legislation before a treaty can be enforced domestically.   

Once a treaty has been signed, a signatory state is obligated to act in accordance with the treaty’s provisions, even if it has not yet been ratified. If a state violates the terms of a treaty and harms another state in doing so, the injured state may have recourse in an international tribunal (see International Tribunals) or through a monitoring body established by the treaty. 


Treaties, Declarations, Conventions, and Compacts

In the list of core instruments below, U.S. status will be indicated by (R) for ratified and (S) for signed but not ratified.

UN Charter
UN Charter

The UN Charter (R) establishes the organization as the global body for multilateral cooperation in maintaining peace and security. The UN is the primary venue for collectively addressing many of the world’s problems, including poverty, health, education, and development. It also coordinates the negotiation of international conventions and the development of international law. The UN Charter, itself a treaty, commits member states to refrain from the use of force except in self-defense and to bring international conflicts before the organs of the UN for peaceful resolution.

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The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties

This convention (S) was drafted by the International Law Commission and submitted to UN members for consideration. Ratified in 1980 by thirty-five state parties, the Vienna Convention establishes common principles for treaty interpretation, suspension, and invalidation. It also cites the International Court of Justice as the appropriate tribunal for settling disputes between states regarding the interpretation of the Vienna Convention itself. Its provisions have become so well established that many are regarded as binding customary law, even by states that have not ratified the treaty, such as the United States.

Vienna Convention on Consular Notification Icon
The Vienna Convention on Consular Notification

This convention (R) establishes mutual obligations of signatories to provide consular access to foreign nationals who have been placed in detention. Under its terms, detained foreign nationals must be notified of the right of access to their consular officials, and the nearest consular office must be notified.

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The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction

The Hague Abduction Convention (R) addresses the issue of child custody disputes that cross international borders. It requires member states to establish a Central Authority that will assist parents and governments, work to locate children, and resolve disputes. The Convention also establishes rules for interpreting custodial rights, deciding children’s residence status, and determining whether visitation or access rights exist.

Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters Icon
Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters

The Hague Service Convention (R) was adopted to provide consistent rules for serving documents on parties to civil and commercial litigation in foreign countries. Parties to the Service Abroad Convention must establish a central authority that accepts requests for service and certifies that service has been delivered.

Hague Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters Icon
The Hague Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters

This convention (R) on evidence abroad came into force in 1972 to facilitate the transmission of evidence from one state party to another upon presentation of letters of request. As with other conventions, the Hague Evidence Convention requires states to establish central authorities that handle requests for evidence from foreign states.

Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols Icon
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 (R) are the primary source of international humanitarian law. They provide rules for treatment of civilians who are shipwrecked, wounded, or prisoners of war. When in the custody of a party to a conflict, civilians and individuals no longer taking part in hostilities must be reasonably protected from harm. The Geneva Conventions restrict how interrogation may be conducted and ban torture absolutely.


International Human Rights Law

The concept of human rights as understood in international law began with the political rights and protections in national constitutions and criminal justice systems. In the twentieth century, the global community agreed on a series of declarations and conventions that define international standards for human rights. Declarations (statements of agreement but not legally binding) and conventions (binding multilateral treaties) continue to be developed.

Taken together, the first three core instruments below are known as the International Bill of Human Rights. They offer a foundation for universally recognized rights, obligations, and protections that apply in domestic and international tribunals. Compliance with these instruments is monitored by specific UN human rights bodies that review country reports and express concerns about implementation. 

The International Bill of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)
The UDHR (S) was adopted by the members of the UN General Assembly in 1948. It is a nonbinding declaration, but the signatures of nearly all the UN members at the time gave it great legitimacy. The UDHR is widely seen as the basis for human rights norms that have developed into customary law.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The ICCPR (R) is a legally binding treaty that defines international standards for rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to a fair trial conducted with due process. Compliance with the ICCPR is overseen by the Human Rights Committee (not to be confused with the Human Rights Council, which supplanted the former Commission on Human Rights).
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR)
The ICESR (S) sets forth rights, obligations, and protections designed to improve living standards for the world’s population. These include rights to fair labor practices, health, and education. The ICESR defines these rights but notes that signatory states may develop domestic guarantees that accord with their resources. The ICESCR is monitored by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Commonly Cited Human Rights Conventions

Click on the images to learn about each convention.
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International Customary Law

Customary law is one of the sources of international law and is legally binding. Customary international law reflects norms established over time by common practices of international relations and diplomacy. When disputes arise as to whether a custom has attained the status of law, judges and legal scholars review the history of state practice and evidence of relevant official pronouncements, known as opinio juris.


Model Codes and Standards

The international community has created model codes, standards, and practices on a variety of rule of law-related subjects. Some specifically target the judiciary, such as the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Conduct and the Hague Memorandum on good practices for the judiciary in adjudicating terrorism cases.

These documents are drafted by panels of international legal experts and are created to assist governments and judiciaries as they develop or revise existing guidelines. The International Commission of Jurists, Council of Europe, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and American Bar Association, Judicial Division are among the organizations that develop model codes and standards, along with companion resources and training programs.

International standards for topics of widespread concern may be adopted by nations as binding treaties. In time, the treaties may serve as the springboard for international practice and opinio juris, the foundation for future customary international law.