The Jadhav Case and the Legal Effect of Non-Registration of Treaties

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Those following the legal tangle of the Jadhav Case closely would have noticed India’s (attempted) coup de grâce in its oral submissions regarding the bilateral Agreement on Consular Access of 21 May 2008 between India and Pakistan (“2008 Agreement”, Annex 10 in India’s Application Instituting Proceedings) – that it is unregistered and thus, incapable of being invoked. Pakistan’s oral submissions indicate that this Agreement will form a large part of its case on merits, which in fact, is far stronger than the Indian or Pakistani media give it credit for. Pakistan claims that, irrespective of guilt, the fact of arrest on “political or security grounds” exempts Jadhav from the right of consular access, as per paragraph (vi) of the Agreement, which reads as follows: “In case of arrest, detention or sentence made on political or security grounds, each side may examine the case on merits.” Pakistan interprets this examination “on merits”, as regarding the grant of consular access itself, making it a matter of discretion rather than right.

India met this contention head on in the oral stage, with a two-pronged argument. First, it argued that the 2008 Agreement does not purport to restrict or reduce consular access rights provided by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 (“VCCR”). According to India, the 2008 Agreement is for the purpose of “confirming or supplementing or extending or amplifying” (Art. 73 VCCR) the VCCR rights, to the extent that the Agreement “further[s] the objective of humane treatment of nationals of either country arrested, detained or imprisoned in the other country” (preamble of the 2008 Agreement). To that extent, the first part of the Indian argument is one of interpretation of paragraph (vi) of the 2008 Agreement. The argument is that the Agreement must not be interpreted as exempting those arrested on political or security grounds from consular access since such an interpretation would be contrary to its preamble, to the VCCR, and to the law of treaties, since Art. 41 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969 (“VCLT”) permits subsequent bilateral agreements only when they are harmonious with pre-existing multilateral treaties. India has not yet offered a counter-interpretation of paragraph (vi). However, a fair guess is that it will argue that the envisaged “examin[ation]…on merits” is for determining the grant of additional rights conferred by the Agreement (such as immediate release and repatriation) and not for the grant of basic VCCR rights themselves.

However, the second argument, only hinted at by the Indian side, is that the 2008 Agreement is, in any event, inherently inapplicable for two separate reasons: if interpreted as Pakistan claims, the bilateral agreement derogates from the effective execution of object and purpose of the earlier, multilateral VCCR, rendering it invalid under Article 41 (read with 42) of the VCLT; and, it has not been registered with the United Nations Secretariat, making it incapable of being invoked before the International Court of Justice.

It is this second argument regarding the invalidity of the Agreement that is the subject of scrutiny here. The legal effect of non-registration of a treaty has not been the subject of significant discussion amongst States, within the UN or even within academic circles. The pertinent legal provision is Article 102 of the Charter of the UN, which, in paragraph (1) mandates registration of all treaties, and in paragraph (2) imposes an additional sanction to incentivise registration – that of being unable to invoke an unregistered treaty before any UN organ. To this extent, this is a remarkable article – most of the Charter’s articles impose obligations upon Member States, but very few of them back this with a specific sanction, in addition to the general breach of international law that violating the Charter would entail [See Hans Kelsen, The Law of the United Nations, Chapter 18 – Sanctions (7th edn., 2008)]. The reason for such additional punitive force can be traced to its drafting at the UN Conference on International Organizations at San Francisco in 1945, where it was observed that “the basic purpose of the obligation was to prevent secret treaties” [UNCIO Documents, vol. 87, p. 26 cited in Brandon, 29 Brit.Y.B.Int’l L. 186, 196 (1952)]. In fact, the equivalent Article 18 of the Covenant of the League of Nations had gone further, stating that “[n]o such Treaty or International Engagement shall be binding until so registered”. This was watered down when the Charter was being drafted, not least because it led to ambiguity as to how such a treaty, otherwise valid, was to be interpreted outside of the League system – was a non-League body, such as, for instance, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (“PCA”) also not to apply such a treaty? The UN system sought to avert such confusion by providing instead for “relative, not an absolute invalidation” of unregistered treaties [Kelsen, p.722]. Article 102 was worded in such a way as to render the handicap operative only before UN organs. This, it was thought, would create a self-contained system – an offence within the UN, penalised within the UN alone.

However, this raised its own set of doubts and ambiguities – would the same treaty now be valid and operative before the PCA, but not before the ICJ? When challenged simultaneously in different courts, could the treaty’s validity, much like Schrodinger’s cat, exist and not exist at the same time? The simple answer to this question is yes. This is exactly what “relative invalidity” envisages. A more nuanced answer would be that the question is not one of validity as much as operability. Even within the UN system, the validity and binding nature of the treaty is not denied – the Court has stated as much on several occasions (in Qatar v. Bahrain, ¶29, for instance); it is merely its enforceability before that forum that is affected. This handicap is considered necessary to incentivise registration while not resulting in a complete denial of rights since other (non-UN) fora remain available. In any event, there is nothing to bar the party from now registering the treaty and then invoking it before a UN organ [there is difference of juristic opinion on whether this can be done while an organ is seised of the matter or if fresh proceedings must be instituted. Compare Brandon, 200 with Robert Kolb, The International Court of Justice, 543 (2013)]. In other words, Article 102(2) is a procedural hurdle (as opposed to a bar).

A last important feature of Article 102(2) is that it only bars the parties to the unregistered treaty themselves from invoking it; neither third parties nor, importantly, the Court itself is barred from relying on an unregistered agreement. In fact, most authors concur that the UN organs themselves are not obliged to enquire into registration. They may, on their own initiative, and they must, if raised as an objection, disallow parties from invoking unregistered treaties; however, nothing bars them from taking cognizance of such treaties irrespective of parties’ invocation. After all, Article 102(2) was meant as a sanction upon parties concluding “secret treaties”, not as a restriction on the organs of the UN in carrying out their functions [Martens, Ch.XVI Miscellaneous Provisions, Article 102, ¶45, 51 in The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Vol. II (Simma et al. eds., 3rd edn., 2012)].

Thus, given how this provision is only a procedural hurdle and how it exists only to reinforce the substantive law laid down in Article 102(1), it is unsurprising that the organs of the UN have overwhelmingly chosen to disregard the unregistered status of treaties, presumably considering the substantive issues at stake to be more important than reinforcing the importance of registration. The ICJ in Qatar v. Bahrain, allowed invocation of the unregistered 1987 double Exchange of Letters, which was agreed between the parties to be a treaty. In Corfu Channel, the ICJ accepted jurisdiction under an unregistered Special Agreement and even permitted the United Kingdom to cite, in its defence, an unregistered agreement dated 22 November 1945 [Martens, ¶56; Brandon, 199]. In the Aegean Sea Continental Shelf case, the effect of Article 102 upon the unregistered accord verbal of 31 May 1975 was questioned but it was nevertheless considered and rejected on merits. Even the Permanent Court, bound by the more onerous Article 18 of the Covenant, in Eastern Greenland, found the unregistered Ihlen Declaration of 22 July 1919 to be “binding” despite the express wording of Article 18. Even before the General Assembly, unregistered treaties have been invoked without objection –the USSR relied on an unregistered 1950 treaty with China before the First Committee [GAOR (VI), 1st Committee, 502nd mtg. 26 January 1952 cited in Martens, ¶53]. It is evident that the unregistered nature of treaties often passes unnoticed. In fact, there is no recorded instance of a UN organ disallowing invocation of a treaty solely on account of non-registration. Authors are not wrong in concluding that Article 102 is “more honoured in the breach than the observance” [Anthony Aust, Modern Treaty Law and Practice (2000), 280; Martens, ¶57]

What sets this case apart from those in the past is, of course, that the unregistered status has not slipped by unnoticed – it has been actively brought up as an objection by one of the parties. In this case, turning a blind eye is out of the question. The Court is in fact mandated to apply the sanction; however, whether it considers itself able (and whether it chooses) to go over and above this sanction to consider the 2008 Agreement on its own initiative remains to be seen. Given the scant notice paid to Article 102 in the past, there is every reason to believe it will do so. In any case, India will do well to formulate an enunciated counter-interpretation of the 2008 Agreement rather than to count upon its inability to be invoked.

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Clément Marquet says

June 19, 2017

Thank you for your interesting post.

Couldn't Pakistan simply register it now? Considering the registration can be done by any party to the treaty, this would essentially void India's objection.

One could wonder whether the subsequent registration would affect the current proceedings (a perpetuatio fori of some sort). However, as underlined in this article, given how little consideration the ICJ seems to have for Art 102, I am not sure this would be much of an issue in any case.

Shashank Kumar says

June 19, 2017

Thanks for the post, Ashrutha. The UNTC website indicates that Pakistan registered the 2008 bilateral agreement with the UN Secretariat on 17 May 2017 (registration no. 54471).

I was a bit surprised by the importance given to the non-registration by India, but I have the following two thoughts in response to your post: first, what amounts to "invocation"? Did Pakistan really "invoke" the 2008 Agreement during the provisional measures phase? What about India's premptive objection? Second, would requiring fresh proceedings to be initiated because the Agreement was registered pendente lite be consistent with the principle of non-formalism developed in the Mavromattis case and applied generally to the administration of justice by the Court?

Mike Sanderson says

June 19, 2017


This is such a great post!

This is a perfect model of what a really good international blog post can and should be: substantive enough to be authoritative, while clear and accessible enough to be helpful to those coming new to the case and/or issue.

You've made a complex issue interesting and clear - many thanks and very well done!

Ashrutha Rai says

June 19, 2017


Thank you for that update – the plot thickens!

With regard to invocation – while the scope of “invoke” was not discussed by the drafters at the San Francisco Conference, juristic opinion is that merely citing a treaty in arguments would not amount to invoking it; only relying upon it as the legal basis for any part of a claim/counterclaim would (for instance, Simma Commentary, paras.46-47, Brandon in BYBIL, p.198). Since Pakistan has relied on the 2008 Agreement in its oral submissions on provisional measures, both to question the Court’s jurisdiction (p.11) and to argue that its actions were prima facie legal (p.21-23), it can certainly be considered to have “invoked” it, even at this stage of proceedings. India’s pre-emptive objection would not, on the other hand, amount to “invoking” it as India was certainly not relying on the treaty as the basis of its own claim (but was citing it in response to Pakistan’s 20.04.17 Foreign Office press briefing, characterising its actions as having drawn validity from this Agreement (Application, Annex 9, p.3)). India repeatedly clarifies that it is only relying on the VCCR for its claim and is seeking to rule out the 2008 Agreement.

To answer your second question – the obligation under Article 102, as I should have made clearer, is not merely to register, but to register “as soon as possible” (a time limit on registration was considered, but ultimately rejected as being too rigid (GAOR, 6th Committee, 2nd Session, p.123)). It thus remains within the discretion of the Court to determine whether a 9-year delay in registration adequately complies with the Art 102 obligation. Even if the Court considers that it does, this will not change matters as regards provisional measures (since its invocation here pre-dated registration). The question, of course, is whether it will also bar Pakistan from invoking the treaty during arguments on merits – this remains unclear. The only similar instance in the past is in the Aegan Sea Continental Shelf case. The relevant treaty (of 31 May 1975) was unregistered but was invoked by Greece in oral arguments; in response to a question on its unregistered status, the Greek counsel mentioned that during the course of these oral arguments, on 11 October 1978, it had been communicated to the Secretariat for registration (p.482). Admittedly, the delay was shorter and the treaty was ultimately not relied on by the Court for substantive reasons, making it unnecessary to enquire further into its unregistered status (though alternatively, it can be considered that the treaty being rejected on merits rather than on the mere fact of it being unregistered answers the question implicitly).
As I mention in the post, there is divided juristic opinion on this point however – Kolb (p.544) says exactly what you do – that given Mavrommatis considerations, it is likely that the Court would not require fresh proceedings for registration pendente lite; Brandon (p.200), meanwhile considers that once rejected by a UN Organ, the matter of an unregistered treaty is res judicata before it and can only be brought up before a different UN Organ upon registration. However, Brandon’s stance could, arguably, only be considered to apply to final judgments and not cases where only provisional measures have been decided, when registration takes place. The timing of registration by Pakistan, together with the larger tendency towards disregard of the Art 102(2) would lead me to believe the Court would not require fresh proceedings.

Ashrutha Rai says

June 19, 2017

I hope my response to Shashank's second question answers your question as well.

Thank you, I'm so glad you found it useful!