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List of Legal Terms


Agreements entered into by countries or international organizations whose terms and conditions impose legal obligations to those who have signed onto the treaty. The U.S. has said that for many of the international treaties it signed onto, ratification is required in order for them to become legally binding; in other words, they are not self-executing. Treaties can also be either bilateral (between a small number of countries, typically two) or multilateral (open to all countries in region or even universally).

Customary International Law:

For a norm to be considered customary international law, it must be a widespread, constant, and uniform state practice compelled by legal obligation that is sufficiently long enough to establish the norm (known as opinio juris), notwithstanding that there may be a few uncertainties or contradictions in practice during this time.1 The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has said that "a very widespread and representative participation in (a) convention might suffice of itself" to evidence the attainment of customary international law, provided it included participation from "states whose interests were specially affected." See "North Sea Continental Shelf Cases" (FRG v. Denmark; FRG v. Netherlands) 1969 I.C.J. 3, paras. 73-74.2

Imposing JLWOP — discretionary sentences:

In states with discretionary sentences, the judge has the discretion to transfer the juvenile to adult court whether or not the sentence is mandatory. Some states, for example, provide the district attorney with discretion to transfer the juvenile to adult court when charging certain crimes. Once in adult court the conviction of such crimes may require imposition of a life without parole sentence. However, the state is listed for the guide's purposes as "discretionary" because there is some discretion in the criminal justice system for preventing juveniles from receiving a life without parole sentence.

Imposing JLWOP — mandatory sentences:

The judge has no choice under the law but to transfer the juvenile to adult court for certain crimes and the JLWOP sentence is mandatory upon conviction.

Jus Cogens:

"A norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character" (Article 53 of the "Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties," 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, May 23, 1969).3 The "Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States," which explicates the content and status of international law as United States law, agrees with this standard (§ 102, cmt. k.). According to the restatement, jus cogens "rules prevail over and invalidate international agreements and other rules of international law in conflict with them" (Id., cmt. k.).

Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations (RUDs):

These are unilateral statements that modify specific treaty obligations of the state party submitting the RUDs. Treaties may vary as to how a reservation can be made by requiring or not requiring approval from the other signatories. Under international law RUDs cannot be incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. Other states parties may object to another state's reservation formally. RUDs and other state party comments are generally posted with the list of ratifying countries on the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.

  • "The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties" is the standard for the formation of treaties and treaty provisions; articles 19-23 of this treaty state when a reservation can be made. The treaty is available here and a further explanation of the treaty is available here.
  • Human Rights Committee, General Comment 24: This comment was to clarify reservations made to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also clarifies how reservations are to be made for all treaties and provides examples of allowable reservations. See U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.6 (1994) for more information.


Countries or nations in the world. According to a U.S. Department of State release in August 2008, there are currently 194 independent countries in the world. The release is available at: http://www.state.gov/s/inr/rls/4250.htm.

Treaty Bodies:

Many of the human rights treaties have bodies known as committees that have the oversight authority to monitor the implementation of treaty obligations by countries. These committees will often issue their own pronouncements in regards to the specific rules and articles of the treaties that they oversee. For more details, read committee pronouncements included in the treaty descriptions on the Relevant Treaties page.

United Nations Resolutions:

These are pronouncements that U.N. bodies adopt in respect to international human rights issues, norms, and commitments applicable to state governments. Most often the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly issue these statements regarding human rights. While these are not legally binding international documents, they are useful in determining what sort of behavior the international community of nations expects from states.

1The United States has also recognized the binding character of customary international law. See The Paquete Habana, 15 U.S. 677, 699 (1900), which discusses the place of international law in domestic U.S. law.

2Because the United States is the only country that applies the JLWOP sentence and holds 100 percent of the cases, the prohibition against the sentence can now be said to have reached the level of a jus cogens (a non-derogable) norm. The international community of nations no longer tolerates it as a legal penalty for children and the United States alone is violating international law by allowing its courts to impose this penalty on children.

3Although the United States has not ratified the Vienna Convention, it nonetheless accepts the treaty's principles as binding law—i.e., part of United States law. See, e.g., "Restatement" § 102 or Connie de la Vega and Jennifer Brown, "Can a United States Treaty Reservation Provide a Sanctuary for the Juvenile Death Penalty?" 32 U.S.F. L. Rev. 735, 754, 759-62 (1998) (explaining that United States is bound by jus cogens).