Document Type



Reservations to Multilateral Treaties: How International Legal Doctrine Reflects World Vision, 23 Harvard International Law Journal 71 (1982)


When a state makes a reservation to an existing or proposed multilateral treaty, it takes exception to one or more provisions of that treaty. A valid reservation alters the state's rights and obligations under the treaty with respect to the objectionable portion. Although reservations appear to be merely a legal technicality, a last-minute accommodation after complicated multilateral negotiations, the doctrine of reservations in fact strikes at the heart of the concept of a multilateral convention. The doctrine pits an individual state's desire to depart from the terms of the treaty against the general agreement of all parties to be bound equally by the terms of a common document.

By examining the evolution of the doctrine of reservations in this century, this Comment will explore how the successive versions of the doctrine reflect the changing conception of multilateral conventions, and will illustrate how a tiny nugget of treaty law provides a battleground for the clash between two basic opposing visions of the world: a world composed of autonomous states versus an integrated world order. This analysis will show how each version of the doctrine of reservations represents a new balance struck between two competing conceptions of multilateral conventions, each of which is based on a particular vision of world society and the international legal order.

Part I describes the methodology of this analysis and outlines the nature of pure "subjective" and "purposive" views of the validity of reservations; it then describes how each of these views suggests particular visions of multilateral treaties and of international relations. Part II analyzes each of the five versions of the doctrine of reservations which have prevailed during this century and in each case derives the conflicting conceptions of multilateral treaties that each new version of the doctrine reveals. Finally. Part III, with the help of the graphical analysis presented in the Appendix, summarizes the conclusions of Part II and speculates on the implications of this analysis beyond the realm of the law of reservations.

Date of Authorship for this Version


Included in

Law Commons