Defining an Important Term: What Is a Multilateral Treaty?


SEATTLE — A multilateral treaty is a general term meaning a written agreement between three or more sovereign states. It often implies an agreement between many or a majority of states, though this is not always the case.

The U.N. Secretary-General is the keeper of all multilateral treaties. As of 2015, at the time of the U.N. General Assembly, there were more than 560 in the U.N.’s possession. These treaties address a range of international issues including human rights, terrorism and climate change.

At the 2015 General Assembly, the U.N. noted that multilateral treaties have grown in complexity over time. Multiple treaties have achieved near-universal approval, but one of the most successful is the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and its accompanying Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Signed by 197 total parties (196 sovereign states and the E.U.) and entered into effect in 1988, these treaties commit participating parties to help maintain the Earth’s ozone layer and stave off global warming.

However, even the most widely agreed-upon multilateral treaties can become divisive in nature. The Kyoto Protocol is another famous environmental multilateral treaty; it commits its participants to reducing emissions, but sets the highest targets for developed countries, acknowledging that these countries have historically produced the most emissions and continue to be the biggest contributors to global warming.

In 2005, 192 parties signed the original treaty. In 2012, though, the Protocol added the Doha Amendment, assigning new target emissions reductions to participating countries. Presently, only 77 parties have accepted the amendment; not enough to put it into practice. The U.S. has not accepted the Doha Amendment.

In 2015, the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement or Paris Climate Accord as a follow-up to the Doha Amendment. Although not formally linked to the original Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement set ambitious emission reduction targets for the world following the year 2020. Initially, 195 parties accepted it. But, recently President Donald Trump made news when he withdrew the U.S. from the agreement.

Although the U.S. is still committed to the goals of the agreement until 2020, Trump drew massive criticism for his decision from U.S. citizens and foreign officials, including Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin.

Although the multilateral treaty proves to be a historically unifying force, it can become a source of contention. For the most part, as evidenced by the Kyoto Protocol and relevant documents, multilateral treaties are not meant to last forever.

Countries meet together after set periods of time to re-evaluate what treaties best serve the greatest number of parties.

Caroline Meyers

Photo: Flickr


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