A treaty is negotiated by duly accredited representatives of the executive branch of the government; for the United States negotiations are ordinarily conducted by officials of the Dept. of State under the authority of the President. The preliminaries are not usually open to the public, but the record of all protocol (i.e., the minutes) is preserved for use in case the treaty provisions require subsequent interpretation. Technical experts draft the text, which the government representatives then sign.
The treaty is next ratified by the signatory states in accordance with their regular practice. In the United States the Constitution requires that a treaty must be approved by two thirds of the Senate (executive agreements, however, which are undertaken through the President's powers and do not need the Senate's approval, account for a large number of the international agreements of the United States). It has been argued that such wartime agreements as those made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference were in effect secret treaties. A treaty comes into effect when the ratifications are formally exchanged.
Members of the United Nations are required to register their treaties with that organization (following the like practice of the League of Nations), and a treaty that has not been registered may not be invoked before a UN agency. If treaties between UN members conflict with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations, the Charter takes precedence.
The interpretation of treaties, like that of all legal documents, may present great difficulties. There is no tribunal with compulsory and final jurisdiction to interpret a treaty; parties may, however, voluntarily submit a dispute to the International Court of Justice (World Court) or the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Hague Tribunal).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.