A treaty ordinarily deals with the rights and duties of nations, but treaties may also grant specific rights to private individuals. Although treaties deal with a great variety of subjects, they are commonly classified under a few heads. Political treaties deal with (among other things) alliances, war, cessions of territory, and rectification of boundaries. Commercial treaties may govern fisheries, navigation, tariffs, and monetary exchange. Legal treaties concern extradition of criminals, patent and copyright protection, and the like.
Treaties are designed to regularize the intercourse of nations, and, as such, they are the source of most international law. In some countries treaties are a part of the law of the land and are binding upon all persons. In the United States the Supreme Court has held that a treaty automatically abrogates any state or federal statute in conflict with it.
Treaties have existed ever since states came into existence. Records survive of Mesopotamian treaties dating before 3000 B.C., and in the Old Testament many treaties are mentioned. The Greeks and the Romans had elaborate ceremonials to emphasize the sanctity of treaties, and many current treaty practices have classical antecedents.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.