Global Law

Edward Vassallo
September 01, 2002
old script
Library of Congress

With a new database, researchers can search for patterns spanning three centuries and 6,500 treaties. Above, an Indian treaty signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, July 13, 1713.

In a back room of the Penn State Behrend library, students are working shifts to make our world smaller: They are creating a Comprehensive Statistical Database of Multilateral Treaties.

Treaties are formal agreements or compacts between two or more nations. For example, on October 20, 2000, the U.S. Senate ratified an international agreement to combat soil erosion around the world. Officially called the "United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification" it commits nations to research, prevent, and reverse the changing of farm and pasture lands into deserts. The United States is just one of 167 countries that have signed the treaty, which entered into force in 1996 after 50 countries had ratified the agreement.

"Treaties are the main source of international law," said John Gamble, professor of political science and international law at Penn State Behrend and the developer of the database. "Treaty research usually looks at a small number of treaties in microscopic detail, but with this database, we will be able to use a wide-angle lens to look at the broader picture."

The database allows researchers to trace treaties through history and search for trends in international law. Or they can search on such topics as national commodities, cultural matters, diplomatic matters, economics, trade, environment, foreign aide, intellectual property, legal relations, humanitarian missions, oceans, military, transportation, communication, territory, health, science, and space. "The principal use of the database is macroscopic questions," said Gamble, "for example how many new economic treaties have been signed each century. This means our prime goal is finding broad patterns in treaty behavior. There are many Internet sites that have information about individual treaties or groups of treaties including the full text. This database is different because it has virtually all multilateral treaties."

Gamble came up with the idea after he reviewed Christian Wiktor's book Multilateral Treaty Calendar, 1648-1995, for the American Journal of International Law. In the fall of 1999, Gamble collected a group of nine undergraduate students to assist him in creating the database. It took them a year to enter the basic information for all 6050 treaties signed into law between the years 1648 to 1995. The basic information includes the head note or title of the treaty, if it is an International Labour Organisation treaty, its relationship to intergovernmental organizations, such as the US. State Department, and the signature date.

"The database begins in the year 1648 because that was the beginning of the modern state system and the beginning of modern multilateral treaty making," said Teresa Bailey, a political science major. "It ends in 1995 because at the time we began the database, 1995 was the most recent complete information we had. One of our many future projects includes expansion of the database to include more recent treaties concluded since 1995. Negotiating and completing a treaty is a lengthy process that often takes years, so it takes some time for information to become available."

Bailey has worked on the project since its inception. Her work includes developing the layout or framework of the database in order to make it searchable. She also entered some of the data, tested the database by searching for all of the treaties of one type or date, and checked all 6050 treaty entries for errors. Along with students Erin McCurdy and Jared Hawk, and Gamble, Bailey helped write an article on the patterns and types of human rights treaties like civil and women's rights. For this she did a search for human rights treaties. Then she isolated these into another database in order to examine those treaties. Charlotte Ku, executive director of the American Society of International Law used their paper as background for a speech at the Academic Council of the United Nations System in June 2001.

"Dr. Ku did not use the United Nations Database because it can find one treaty or a series of treaties; however, it does not have the quantitative capabilities that our database has," said Bailey. "Our database can trace treaties over time to find patterns, and she was looking for the growth of Intergovernmental Organizations in the world. Our database can analyze and graph this information, the United Nations' database cannot. The United Nations database has 250 categories to search for information. Our database is more broad," she added. It can be searched by the 250 categories of the United Nations database and by a set of 14 mid-level categories.

Aimee Peterson, a political science major who began working on the Comprehensive Database as a work-study student two years ago, currently researches the countries involved in various treaties and why they are involved. She accesses the United Nations Treaty Series online to find who the participants in the treaty were. That database is also a work in progress and does not provide all the information her project requires. It is also difficult to find this information on the Internet because of the lack of posted material. "Gathering the information is so frustrating because there are holes in the information," said Peterson. "We use the United Nations Treaty Series online, but it's so new that it's not comprehensive."

When the Comprehensive Database is complete it may become the new means to find such information. For now the database is only intended for internal use by Penn State faculty and students.

"As we become members of an increasing global society, I think it is important to look at the bigger picture of what international law is and how it is changing," said Bailey, "so that we may one day have some ability to see what direction civilization is moving toward."

Teresa Bailey received a B.S. in political science with honors in May 2002 from the College of Human and Social Science at Penn State Behrend and the Schreyer Honors College. Aimee Peterson and Emily Allen are political science majors at Penn State Behrend. Their adviser, John K. Gamble, Ph.D., is professor of political science and international law at Penn State Behrend and coordinator of the Penn State Behrend Honors Program, Penn State University, Erie, PA 16563; 814-898-6291; Funded by the Behrend Undergraduate Student Research Fund.

Last Updated September 01, 2002