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Interpretation of Peace Treaties, ICJ Rep. 1950, at 221 et seq.

Interpretation of Peace Treaties, ICJ Rep. 1950, at 221 et seq.
Table of Contents


July 18th, 1950







Having stated, in its Opinion of March 30th, 1950, that the Governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania are obligated to carry out the provisions of those articles of the Peace Treaties which relate to the settlement of disputes, including the provisions for the appointment of their representatives to the Treaty Commissions, and having received Information from the Secretary-General of the United Nations that none of those Governments had notified him, within thirty days from the date of the delivery of the Courts' Advisory Opinion, of the appointment of its representative to the Treaty Commissions, the Court is now called upon to answer Question III in the Resolution of the General Assembly of October 22nd, 1949, which reads as follows :

"III. If one party fails to appoint a representative to a Treaty Commission under the Treaties of Peace with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania where that party is obligated to appoint a representative to the Treaty Commission, is the Secretary-General of the United Nations authorized to appoint the third member of the Commission upon the request of the other party to a dispute according to the provisions of the respective Treaties ?"

Articles 36, 40 and 38, respectively, of the Peace Treaties with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, after providing that disputes concerning the Interpretation or execution of the Treaties which had not been settled by direct negotiation should be referred to the Three Heads of Mission, continue :

"Any such dispute not resolved by them within a period of two months shall, unless the parties to the dispute mutually agree upon another means of settlement, be referred at the request of either party to the dispute to a Commission composed of one representative of each party and a third member selected by mutual agreement of the two parties from nationals of a third country. Should the two parties fail to agree within a period of one month upon the appointment of the third member, the Secretary-General of the United Nations may be requested by either party to make the appointment.


2. The decision of the majority of the members of the Commission shall be the decision of the Commission, and shall be accepted by the Parties as definitive and binding."

The question at issue is whether the provision empowering the Secretary-General to appoint the third member of the Commission applies to the present case, in which one of the parties refuses to appoint its own representative to the Commission.

It has been contended that the term "third member" is used here simply to distinguish the neutral member from the two Commissioners appointed by the parties without implying that the third member can be appointed only when the two national Commissioners have already been appointed, and that therefore the mere fact of the failure of the parties, within the stipulated period, to select the third member by mutual agreement satisfies the condition required for the appointment of the latter by the Secretary-General.

The Court considers that the text of the Treaties does not admit of this Interpretation. While the text in its literal sense does not completely exclude the possibility of the appointment of the third member before the appointment of both national Commissioners it is nevertheless true that according to the natural and ordinary meaning of the terms it was intended that the appointment of both the national Commissioners should precede that of the third member. This clearly results from the sequence of the events contemplated by the article : appointment of a national Commissioner by each party ; selection of a third member by mutual agreement of the parties ; failing such agreement within a month, his appointment by the Secretary-General. Moreover, this is the normal order followed in the practice of arbitration, and in the absence of any express provision to the contrary there is no reason to suppose that the parties wished to depart from it.

The Secretary-Generals power to appoint a third member is derived solely from the agreement of the parties as expressed in the disputes clause of the Treaties ; by its very nature such a clause must be strictly construed and can be applied only in the case expressly provided for therein. The case envisaged in the Treaties is exclusively that of the failure of the parties to agree upon the selection of a third member and by no means the much more serious case of a complete refusal of co-operation by one of them, taking the form of refusing to appoint its own Commissioner. The Power conferred upon the Secretary-General to help the parties ; out of the difficulty of agreeing upon a third member cannot be extended to the Situation which now exists.

Reference has been made for the purpose of justifying the reversal of the normal order of appointment, to the possible advantage that might result, in certain circumstances, from the appointment of a third member before the appointment by the parties of their respective commissioners. Such a change in the normal sequence could only


be justified if it were shown by the attitude of the Parties that they desired such a reversal in order to facilitate the constitution of the Commissions in accordance with the terms of the Treaties. But such is not the present case. The Governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania have from the beginning denied the very existence of a dispute, and have absolutely refused to take part, in any manner whatever, in the procedure provided for in the disputes clauses of the Treaties. Even after the Court had given its Advisory Opinion of March 3oth, 1950, which declared that these three Governments were bound to carry out the provisions of the Peace Treaties for the settlement of disputes, particularly the obligation to appoint their own Commissioners, these Governments have continued to adopt a purely negative attitude.

In these circumstances, the appointment of a third member by the Secretary-General, instead of bringing about the constitution of a three member Commission such as the Treaties provide for, would result only in the constitution of a two-member Commission. A Commission consisting of two members is not the kind of commission for which the Treaties have provided. The opposition of the Commissioner of the only party represented could prevent a Commission so constituted from reaching any decision whatever. Such a Commission could only decide by unanimity, whereas the dispute clause provides that "the decision of the majority of the members of the Commission shall be the decision of the Commission and shall be accepted by the parties as definitive and binding". Nor would the decisions of a Commission of two members, one of whom is appointed by one party only, have the same degree of moral authority as those of a three-member Commission. In every respect, the result would be contrary to the letter as well as the spirit of the Treaties.

In short, the Secretary-General would be authorized to proceed to the appointment of a third member only if it were possible to constitute a Commission in conformity with the provisions of the Treaties. In the present case, the refusal by the Governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania to appoint their own Commissioners has made the constitution of such a Commission impossible and has deprived the appointment of the third member by the Secretary-General of every purpose.

As the Court has declared in its Opinion of March 30th, 1950, the Governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania are under an obligation to appoint -their representatives to the Treaty Commissions, and it is clean that refusal to fulfil a treaty obligation involves international responsibility. Nevertheless, such a refusal cannot alter the conditions contemplated in the Treaties for the exercise by the Secretary-General of his power of appointment. These conditions are not present in this case, and their absence


is not made good by the fact that it is due to the breach of a treaty Obligation. The failure of machinery for settling disputes by reason of the practical impossibility of creating the Commission provided for in the Treaties is one thing ; international responsibility is another. The breach of a treaty obligation cannot be remedied by creating a Commission which is not the kind of Commission contemplated by the Treaties. It is the duty of the Court to interpret the Treaties, not to revise them.

The principle of Interpretation expressed in the maxim : Ut res magis valeat quam pereat, often referred to as the rule of effectiveness, cannot justify the Court in attributing to the provisions for the settlement of disputes in the Peace Treaties a meaning which, as stated above, would be contrary to their letter and spirit.

It has been pointed out that an arbitration commission may make a valid decision although the original number of its members, as fixed by the arbitration agreement, is later reduced by such circumstances as the withdrawal of one of the commissioners. These cases presuppose the initial validity of a commission, constituted in conformity with the will of the parties as expressed in the arbitration agreement, whereas the appointment of the third member by the Secretary-General in circumstances other than those contemplated in the Treaties raises precisely the question of the initial validity of the constitution of the Commission. In law, the two situations are clearly distinct and it is impossible to argue from one to the other.

Finally, it has been alleged that a negative answer by the Court to Question III would seriously jeopardize the future of the large number of arbitration clauses which have been drafted on the same model as that which appears in the Peace Treaties with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. The ineffectiveness in the present case of the clauses dealing with the settlement of disputes does not permit such a generalization. An examination of the practice of arbitration shows that, whereas the draftsmen of arbitration conventions have very often taken care to provide for the consequences of the inability of the parties to agree on the appointment, of a third member, they have, apart from exceptional cases, refrained from anticipating a refusal by a party to appoint its own commissioner. The few Treaties containing express provisions for such a refusal indicate that the States which adopted this course felt the impossibility of remedying this situation simply by way of Interpretation. In fact, the risk of such a possibility of a refusal is a small one, because normally each party has a direct interest in the appointment of its commissioner and must in any case be presumed to observe its treaty obligations. That this was not so in the present case does not justify the Court in exceeding its judicial function on the pretext


of remedying a default for the occurrence of which the Treaties have made no provision.

Consequently, Question III must be answered in the negative. It is therefore not necessary for the Court to consider Question IV, which requires an answer only in the event of an affirmative answer to the preceding Question.







The principle of international law applicable to the Interpretation of treaties, which has been established by the series of authorities a cited in this and in the preceding paragraph, was concisely and accurately stated by the Permanent Court in its Advisory Opinion, Series B, No. 7. The Court was dealing with the Polish Minorities Treaty. In considering an objection to the competence of the League of Nations, the Court refused to accept the Polish argument for a restrictive Interpretation of the Treaty and stated, at page 16:

"If this were not the case, the value and sphere of application of the Treaty would be greatly diminished. But in the Advisory Opinion given with regard to the questions put concerning German Colonists in Poland, the Court has already expressed the view that an interpretation which would deprive the Minorities Treaty of a great part o f its value is inadmissible. In the present case, it would be still less admissible, since A would be contrary to the actual terms of the Treaty, which lays down in Article 4 that the clauses preceding this Article, including therefore those contained in Article 4, are placed under the guarantee of the League of Nations." (Italics added.).


Professor Lauterpacht, in The Development of International Law by the Permanent Court of International Justice, made an exhaustive examination of the authorities as they stood at the date of publication, 1934, including most of those which are cited above, and a number of other relevant Judgments and Opinions of the Permanent Court. He records the result of this study at pages 69-70 .:

" ... The work of the Permanent Court has shown that alongside the fundamental principle of Interpretation, namely, that effect is to be given to the Intention of the parties, full use can be made of another hardly less important principle, namely, that the treaty must remain effective rather than ineffective. Res magis valeat quam pereat. It is a major principle, in the light of which the intention of the parties must always be interpreted, even to the extent of disregarding the letter of the Instrument and of reading into it something which, on the face of it, it does not contain."

The principles established by these judgments and advisory opinions may be stated as follows :

(1) That "the treaty must be read as a whole, and that its meaning is not to be determined merely upon particular phrases which, if detached from the context, may be interpreted in more than one sense". (Series B, Nos. 2 and 3, p. 23.)

(2) "An Interpretation which would deprive the .... Treaty of a great part of its value is inadmissible." (Series B, No. 7the word omitted is "minorities".)

(3) Particular provisions should be interpreted in such a manner as to give effect to the general purposes and objects of the Treaty provided that "it does not involve doing violence to their terms". (I.C.J. Reports 1949, p. 24.)

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