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date: 12 June 2021

(p. vii) Foreword

(p. vii) Foreword

For delegates taking part in the 1945 San Francisco Conference, it was clear that the Charter of the United Nations (UN) was a historic document. Its ambition was to build a new international system, founded on the rule of law. From their inception, the UN Organization and its specialized agencies—at different speeds and through different procedures—pursued that ambition through treaty-making, which today embraces almost every aspect of international affairs.

Assessing the contribution that the UN system has made, through its treaty-making, to our contemporary world is a daunting task. It demands remarkable attention to detail: each treaty regime—in human rights, environmental protection, disarmament, etc.—has its own individual features, complex treaty-making techniques, and detailed implementation mechanisms. To truly understand their scope and significance, one needs to examine thoroughly each of these regimes separately, taking into account the background of negotiations and their influence on the practice of states. But, at the same time, this task requires an all-embracing view of the multilateral treaty framework as a whole. In assessing the impact of a multilateral regime on international relations, consideration needs to be given to its interactions with other treaty regimes, how institutions have engaged in a dialogue to achieve their common goals, and how they have influenced each other’s treaty-making practices.

In their introduction, the Editors of this volume advance the argument that the UN’s greatest contribution to humankind might properly be thought of as a process—in other words, that the UN has permitted a major shift in the normative structure of international law that has expanded the range and depth of subjects covered by treaties. They show how the UN has served as a flexible forum of treaty negotiation, which has taken advantage of the institutional strengths of the system, as well as an effective vehicle for implementation, to ensure that treaty regimes are followed up in practice. They demonstrate how this has transformed the landscape of international law, in its evolution from bilateralism to multilateralism.

The present Oxford Handbook on UN Treaties is an invaluable addition to scholarship in this field. The Editors were uniquely positioned to initiate this endeavor. Their combined expertise draws from their long-standing involvement in diplomatic circles and international organizations, as well as their impressive scholarly production covering a multitude of topics of international law. But an enterprise of this magnitude is necessarily a collective one, since it requires a detailed examination of many treaty regimes. And the Editors have been able to call upon an extraordinary group of contributors, which includes judges of international tribunals, experienced diplomats and international officials, and distinguished scholars in law and other social sciences, as well as (p. viii) younger voices from practice and academia. The result is 34 chapters, which individually offer insightful descriptions of specific regimes or thematic issues, but together form a remarkable mosaic that will allow readers to make their own assessment of the contribution of UN treaty-making to international relations.

The first part of the volume, entitled “Evolution,” provides a historical and systemic overview of how the activity of the UN system has developed in the area of treaty-making. This part traces the evolution of UN treaty-making means and objectives from the Charter into the various treaty regimes, but also offers a fascinating dialogue between scholars offering a theoretical analysis of major trends and practitioners who can assess those same trends from their firsthand involvement in the UN system.

The second part, entitled “Practice,” provides an in-depth examination of specific treaty regimes, structured in four main areas: international peace and security, economic and social development, human rights, and international law. Each contribution identifies the major UN treaties in the area and describes the background of their negotiation; it also examines the main aspects of the relevant treaty regime and assesses its impact on international relations, as well as avenues of future development. In many cases, authors are leading authorities in their field, often with personal experience on the topic. An interesting feature of the volume is that, in some cases, the main contribution on a specific topic is supplemented with a “practitioner reflection” in which a person involved in the practical aspects of the treaty regime provides a unique inside view of negotiations.

Finally, the third part, entitled “Technique,” addresses certain practical matters relating to the building of the international treaty framework. Chapters examine patterns in the negotiation of multilateral treaties, the participation of international organizations and other nonstate actors in the multilateral treaty process, the depositary role played by the Secretary-General with regard to multilateral treaties, and the lessons learned from the significant body of treaties and international agreements registered under Article 102 of the Charter. These chapters bring us back to a more hands-on perspective of UN treaty-making, showing major trends in legal techniques.

The Editors invited all contributors to an “Authors Meeting,” which was held in Greentree, not far from the United Nations Headquarters in New York, early in the process of drafting, in April 2017. That gathering offered an opportunity for contributors to share their preliminary thoughts on this Handbook and exchange views on possible approaches to its topic. More importantly, the meeting, which I joined, created a sense of community in this collective endeavor—something apparent in reading the pages of this volume.

Like the subject matter it addresses, this Handbook shows how diversity may engender unity and coherence. I commend the book to anyone interested in understanding how international law has contributed to world order and prosperity, and how the UN and its specialized agencies have helped draft and implement the growing number of documents grouped here, fittingly, as “United Nations treaties.”

Miguel de Serpa Soares

United Nations Legal Counsel and Under-Secretary-General

for Legal Affairs