There are numerous international conventions and declarations covering issues as diverse as human rights and chemical weapons. Major international conventions or declarations are widely ratified—all with over one hundred and seventy signatories.
These international conventions constitute international law. While some are not legally binding, they nonetheless are important from the point of view of international courts and even some national supreme courts. These international conventions have fundamentally altered the ways in which countries deal with each other as well as how they treat their own citizens and those of other countries.
International conventions are agreements between different countries that are legally binding on the contracting states. They become binding when the state that is a party to it formally ratifies it. The term “convention” is oftentimes used synonymously with “treaty,” “covenant,” “agreement,” and “deal.”
Declarations are not similar in scope to conventions but are typically binding on the parties who sign them.
International conventions cover diverse areas, including but not limited to trade, science, crime, disarmament, and human rights.
If legally binding, the progress of the states vis-à-vis the provisions of the treaty is recorded by a monitoring commission. For example, with the Paris climate deal—which is a legally binding treaty—beginning 2024, countries will report transparently on actions taken and progress made under an enhanced transparency framework.
However, the issue with international conventions and treaties is that, ultimately, it is up to member countries to enforce the treaty provisions; no external mechanism can compel them in that regard. Thus, a frequent complaint—especially with the Paris deal—is that international treaties are ineffective and mostly serve a performative role.
List of Major International Conventions and Declarations
|S. No.||Name of Convention/Declaration||Place||Year||Enforcement Date|
|1.||United Nations Charter||San Francisco, U.S.A.||1945||24 Oct 1945|
|2.||U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change||Rio de Janeiro, Brazil;|
New York, U.S.A.
|1992||21 Mar 1994|
|3.||Kyoto Protocol||Kyoto, Japan||1997||16 Feb 2005|
|4.||Paris Agreement||Paris, France||2015||4 Nov 2016|
|5.||Geneva Conventions||Geneva, Switzerland||1949*||21 Oct 1950|
|6.||Convention on the Rights of the Child||New York, U.S.A.||1989||2 Sept 1990|
|7.||Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations||Vienna, Austria||1961||24 Apr 1964|
|8.||Vienna Convention on Consular Relations||Vienna, Austria||1963||19 Mar 1967|
|9.||Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons||Moscow, Russia;|
Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
|1968||5 Mar 1970|
|10.||Chemical Weapons Convention||Paris, France;|
New York, U.S.A.
|1992||29 Apr 1997|
|11.||Universal Declaration of Human Rights||Paris, France||1948||10 Dec 1948|
|12.||International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights||New York, U.S.A.||1966||23 Mar 1976|
|13.||International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights||New York, U.S.A.||1966||3 Jan 1976|
*Each convention has different dates, and some are substantially revised versions of earlier documents. Some have been revised multiple times.
United Nations Charter
The Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice (mostly shortened to the U.N. Charter) is the foundational document of the United Nations.
The UN Charter set forth the principles and aims of the United Nations. It also established the structure of the United Nations and the UN system—including its six principal organs.
The UN Charter is almost universally ratified, with 193 parties to the Charter.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) has near-universal membership, with 193 U.N. signatories to the treaty, 3 Non-UN states, and the European Union (EU).
The aim of the UNFCCC is to “prevent ‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system.” It aims to achieve that by stabilising greenhouse gas emissions at levels that would not damage the climate.
The UNFCCC is an influential framework that spawned two other treaties. The first extension to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol and, later, the Paris deal which superseded the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol, in essence, operationalises the UNFCCC It is based on the principles of the UNFCCC and follows its structure.
The Kyoto Protocol, like the Framework, places additional responsibility on developed nations (OECD nations) to work towards reducing emissions. The Protocol sets binding targets for these countries as well as economies in transition and the EU.
The Kyoto Protocol was amended by the Doha Amendment in 2012. However, this amendment has not come into force yet.
The Paris Agreement is a “legally binding international treaty on climate change.” It superseded the Kyoto Protocol upon entering into force.
The Paris Agreement differs from the Kyoto Protocol in numerous ways.
- For one, the Paris treaty’s commitment targets do not have legal force.
- Two, the Paris Agreement does not place sole emphasis on developed countries to take action; both developed and developing countries will have to submit emission reduction plans.
The Paris Agreement, however, does not include Iran and the United States—the latter of which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Geneva Conventions are a series of treaties and protocols that set the limits for how prisoners of war, civilians, sick and wounded armed personnel, and others who are no longer taking part in hostilities ought to be treated. They comprise four treaties and three protocols.
The First Geneva Convention, first adopted in 1864, governed the treatment of the wounded and sick on the battlefield. After multiple revisions, it was revised for the last time in 1949.
The Second Geneva Convention is the successor to The Hague Convention (X) of 1907. It was first adopted in 1949. This convention defined how armed forces at sea who were wounded, sick, or shipwrecked were to be treated.
The Third Geneva Convention referred to the treatment of prisoners of war.
The most recent treaty is the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which relates to the protection of civilian persons in wartime.
The additional protocols further strengthened the protections afforded to victims of international and non-international armed conflicts.
Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is historically the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty, with all eligible states—196—except the United States party to the treaty.
The Convention recognised that children are individuals with their own rights. It has moved governments to amend their laws to protect children and encouraged their all-around development.
Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations defined the architecture of diplomatic ties and conferred certain privileges and immunities on diplomatic agents. It has 192 parties.
Under Articles 29 to 36, the Convention vouchsafes protection from arrest or detention, complete immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state, limited immunity from the civil jurisdiction, exemption from paying certain taxes and participation in public services, etc to diplomatic agents.
These form the cornerstone of what is known as diplomatic immunity.
Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations established a framework for consular relations between sovereign states. This convention has been ratified by 180 countries.
This Convention, like the Diplomatic Relations Convention, confers certain immunities and privileges on consuls and consular premises.
This convention caught mainstream attention when Ecuador, a South American country, provided refuge to Julian Assange in its embassy in London. Despite being the target of an arrest warrant, Julian Assange could not be arrested by the London Police, as he was on Ecuadorian territory.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
Simply known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or N.P.T., this treaty seeks to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.”
This treaty is regarded as a cornerstone in an attempt to prevent nuclear proliferation.
However, as borne out by reality, the N.P.T. was startlingly ineffectual, with numerous countries acquiring nuclear technology even after it’s coming into force.
Chemical Weapons Convention
Formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, this treaty aims to “eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction” by prohibiting chemical weapons.
The Convention also contains the “challenge inspection,” whereby any party can challenge another party’s compliance. No party can refuse an inspection.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.D.H.R.) is considered to be a foundational document—forming the basis of numerous treaties, instruments, constitutions, and legal codes.
The U.D.H.R. recognised that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This was a radical declaration considering the bigotry that was rampant at the time.
In furtherance of that declaration, the U.D.H.R. set out fundamental human rights that were to be universally protected.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (I.C.C.P.R.) binds its parties to promote and observe the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, the right to not be tortured or experimented upon, the right to liberty and security of person, among several others.
The I.C.C.P.R. has 173 parties and is monitored by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) binds its parties to promote and observe the economic, social, and cultural rights of individuals.
These rights include the right to work, the right to join trade unions, the right to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to education and physical and mental health, the right to partake in cultural life, etc.
The ICESCR has three fewer parties than the ICCPR, at 170.
 Definition from “Frequently Asked Questions regarding the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” United Nations. Available here.
 “What is the Paris Agreement?” UNFCCC. Available here.
 UN Charter (Full Text). United Nations. Available here.
 “What is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change?” UNFCCC. Available here.
 “What is the Kyoto Protocol?” UNFCCC. Available here.
 “What is the Paris Agreement?” UNFCCC. Available here.
 “The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols.” ICRC. Available here.
 “What is the Convention on the Rights of the Child?” UNICEF. Available here.
 “Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” 1961. United Nations. Available here.
 “Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.” 1963. United Nations. Available here.
 “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” United Nations. Available here.
 “Chemical Weapons Convention.” OPCW. Available here.
 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Available here.
 “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” United Nations. Available here.
 “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” UN OHCHR. Available here.