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U.K. Treaties Online

The Treaty Section of the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office has recently launched a database of information on more than 14,000 treaties relating to the U.K.  The database is called UK Treaties Online.  Coverage is from 1835 to the present, and information provided for each treaty includes treaty type, date of adoption, depositary, date of entry into force, publication reference, and participant status.  All of these data points are also searchable in the database, as are country-of-opposite party, date and place of signature, treaty type, and boolean combinations of title words.  The records allow one to answer questions such as the following: does the U.K. have an extradition treaty with India?; are bats protected by treaty, and if so, how many country parties are there?; what countries does the U.K. have a prisoner transfer agreements with?; what are the correct titles for the “Aarhus Protocols” on climate change?  The database is updated weekly, although the F.C.O. does not guarantee that new information is added within a definite timescale, and for multilateral treaties suggests that researchers contact depositaries concerned for up-to-date information on paraticipant status.  The F.C.O. also warns that information for early 19th century treaties may not be complete.

Prior to launching the database, the F.C.O. commissioned the scanning of the full text of treaties published in the Treaty Series, from its inception in 1896 through 1996.  As a result, researchers can link from treaty records in the database directly to the PDF version of treaties published during that time span.  Large treaties have been divided into multiple files, each kept to a maximum of half a megabyte.  Therefore, researchers interested in a particular section of such a treaty will have to use the treaty’s own table of contents or index to locate the desired file.  It should be noted that post-1996 ratified treaties are available in full text elsewhere at the F.C.O. website, in the Treaty Command Papers and Explanatory Memoranda section.  Unratified treaties, regardless of date of signature by the U.K., are published in the printed Command Papers, and are not available in the F.C.O. database.

All treaty databases are complex, due to the complex nature of the information recorded, and UK Treaties Online is no exception.  For example, records of multilateral treaties do not include the texts of reservations and declarations, unless the U.K. serves as depositary of the treaty in question.  Also, current status information is not included for every treaty.  If a treaty has “clearly been terminated or superseded,” a note indicating the fact is included.  However, current status may well be subject to legal interpretation, in which case the F.C.O. Treaty Section provides no legal opinion.  A number of questions arise from the historical variety of treaty practices in the U.K.’s relationship to both its Crown dependencies and members of the Commonwealth.  For example, treaties concluded on behalf of Commonwealth states are recorded in the database as having been concluded between the U.K. acting on behalf of a Commonwealth state and a third state.  All information recorded in the database employs country names as of the date of signature.  Thus, to find all treaties between the U.K. and Russia, one will also have to look for treaties between the U.K. and Russian Federation and the Soviet Union.  Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the U.K. is “dualist” in its approach to treaty ratification, i.e. U.K. treaties are not self-executing.  Even after a treaty is ratified, it does not take force within the municipal law of the U.K. unless Parliament enacts a statute transposing the treaties obligations into the law of the U.K.  Such statutes are not included in the treaty database.  Fortunately, UK Treaties Online includes a very good introduction, entitled Guidance for users.

Despite the complexity noted above, U.K. Treaties Online is a very easy database to use.  The search interface is uncluttered and intuitive, the information in each record is presented clearly, and access to PDF files is straightforward.

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