Technical terms

Technical terms

For those whose interest in the right to communicate is grounded in the communication field itself, the terminology surrounding human rights instruments may be unfamiliar. The entries here can help reduce uncertainty.

A number of terms that are employed in international instruments that now are or seek to become binding in international law are listed below. This list will be expanded from time to time.

Most of the text for the terms below is taken from the UN Treaty Reference Guide available on the web at


An expression of opinion, will, or intent voted on by an official body or assembled group.


The term 'declaration' is used for various international instruments. However, declarations are not always legally binding. The term is often deliberately chosen to indicate that the parties do not intend to create binding obligations but merely want to declare certain aspirations. An example is the 1992 Rio Declaration. Declarations can however also be treaties in the generic sense intended to be binding at international law. It is therefore necessary to establish in each individual case whether the parties intended to create binding obligations. Ascertaining the intention of the parties can often be a difficult task. Some instruments entitled 'declarations' were not originally intended to have binding force, but their provisions may have reflected customary international law or may have gained binding character as customary law at a later stage. Such was the case with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Declarations that are intended to have binding effects could be classified as follows:

a. A declaration can be a treaty in the proper sense. A significant example is the Joint Declaration between the United Kingdom and China on the Question of Hong Kong of 1984.

b. An interpretative declaration is an instrument that is annexed to a treaty with the goal of interpreting or explaining provisions of the latter.

c. A declaration can also be an informal agreement with respect to a matter of minor importance.


The term 'convention' can have both a generic and a specific meaning.

a. Convention as a generic term: Art.38(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice refers to 'international conventions, whether general or particular' as a source of law, apart from international customary rules and general principles of international law and -- as a secondary source -- judicial decisions and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists. This generic use of the term 'convention embraces all international agreements, in the same way as does the generic term 'treaty.' Black letter law is also regularly referred to as 'conventional law', in order to distinguish it from the other sources of international law, such as customary law or the general principles of international law. The generic term 'convention' thus is synonymous with the generic term 'treaty.'

b. Convention as a specific term: Whereas in the last century the term 'convention' was regularly employed for bilateral agreements, it is now generally used for formal multilateral treaties with a broad number of parties. Conventions are normlly open for participation by the international community as a whole, or by a large number of states. Usually the instruments negotiated under the asupices of an international organization are entitled conventions (e.g. Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969). The same holds true for instruments adopted by an organ of an international organization (e.g. the 1951 ILO Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, adopted by the International Labour Conference or the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN).


'Adoption' is the formal act by which the form and content of a proposed treaty [or convention] text are established. As a general rule, the adoption of the text of a treaty takes place through the expression of the content of the states participating in the treaty-making process. Treaties that are negotiated within an international organization will usually be adopted by a resoution of a represenative organ of the organization whose membership more less corresponds to the potential participation in the treaty in question. A treaty can also be adopted by an international conference which has specifically been convened for setting up the treaty, by a vote of two thirds of the states present and voting, unless, by the same majority, they have decided to apply a different rule.


Ratification defines the international act whereby a state indicates its consent to be bound to a treaty [or convention] if the parties intended to show their consent by such an act. In the case of bilateral treaties, ratification is usually accomplished by exchanging the requisite instruments, while in the case of multilateral treaties the usual procedure is for the depositary to collect the ratifications of all states, keeping all parties informed of the situation. The institution of ratification grants states the necessary time-frame to seek the required approval for the treaty on the domestic level and to enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to that treaty.

Entry into force

Typically, the provisions of the treaty [or convention] determine the date on which the treaty enters into force. Where the treaty does not specifiy a date, there is a presumption that the treaty is intended to come into force as soon all the negotiating states have consented to be bound by the treaty. ... In cases where multilateral treates are involved, it is common to provide for a fixed number of states to express their consent for entry into force. Some treaties provide for additional conditions to be satisfied, e.g., by specifying that a certain catergory of states must be among the consenters. The treaty may also provide for an additional time period to elapse after the required number of countries have expressed their consent or the conditions have been satisfied. A treaty enters into force for those states which gave the required consent. A treaty may also provide that, upon certain conditions having been met, it shall come into force provisionally.

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