Most Existing International Treaties Do Not Work


How can policymakers make treaties more effective? With new treaties routinely called and drafted, it is imperative these instruments are evaluated for whether they serve their intended purpose. We use innovative global legal epidemiological methods to assess whether and under what conditions treaties are helpful in addressing global challenges.

Prativa Baral, Gigi Lin, Matthew Hughsam, Harkanwal Randhawa, Sophie Campbell, Brooke Campus, Maria Dantas, Neda Foroughian, Gaëlle Groux, Elliot Gunn, Mina Karabit, Aneesh Karir, Krista Kruja, Olivia Lee, Binxi Li, Kiyuri Naicker, Ali Tejpar, Maxwell Tran, Nicola Sahar, Archita Srivastava
Collaborating Researchers
Gordon Guyatt, John N. Lavis, John-Arne Røttingen, Yu-qing Zhang, Qi Zhou

While new treaties are routinely called for to address global challenges, little evidence exists evaluating if these instruments are serving their intended purpose. Without empirical evidence, policymakers are left with personal experience, case studies and intuition to design and negotiate new international laws.

Considerable resources are invested into drafting, signing, ratifying, and enforcing international treaties. Moreover, the indirect opportunity costs associated with negotiating and implementing treaties may draw attention away from potentially more important initiatives. An assessment of international treaties, including how they could be more effective, is warranted and necessary. 

Our research evaluated 224 studies to uncover which treaties have effects, what those effects are, and how future treaties could be designed for greater effectiveness. We conducted a systematic field-wide evidence synthesis to evaluate the effects of international treaties, which included a rigorous systematic review of all existing quantitative impact evaluations of treaties based on a published protocol.

Key Findings

  1. We measured the effects of treaties in six policy domains and only one was associated with measurable progress
  • Environmental, X
  • Human rights, X
  • Humanitarian X
  • Maritime X
  • Security,  X
  • Trade and finance
  1. Of the four treaty design mechanisms considered, the only modifiable treaty design choice with the potential to improve effectiveness was the inclusion of enforcement mechanisms such as prescribing financial sanctions on countries or expelling countries from treaty bodies. In contrast, the study found that complaint, oversight, and transparency mechanisms were not associated with greater treaty effectiveness.  


While the 224 studies analyzed in this evidence synthesis constitute a substantial body of scientific literature on the impact of international treaties, the quality and breadth of this evidence must improve. 

  • More funding is needed to support research on disentangling the contexts and circumstances in which treaty design mechanisms can be effectively deployed to achieve treaties’ intended impacts.
  • Calls for new international treaties to address global challenges beyond trade and finance should be received with caution. 
  • Future treaties beyond trade and finance that do not have enforcement mechanisms are unlikely to be worth their considerable effort and may cause unintended harm. 

These findings are immediately relevant for treaties that are currently being negotiated or that are being considered for negotiation.

Project outputs

Watch Dr. Mathieu Poirier Highlight Key Findings From the Paper:

How enforcement mechanisms could help make treaties in other policy areas more effective. [Video 1]

The inclusion of enforcement mechanisms is our best chance at making treaties effective [Video 2, Video 3]

Next steps and recommendations for the future of international treaties based on our findings [Video 4]


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