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Department of International Law

The Role of the Object and Purpose in Treaty Interpretation: An Enigma… to Elucidate

Funding Organisation: Swiss National Science Foundation, Doc.CH scheme
Timeline: March 2022–February 2026
Budget:  CHF 250,811
Keywords: Treaty Interpretation; Object and purpose; International Law; Teleology; Treaties; International Organizations; Self-Interpretation; International Courts and Tribunals



Interpreting treaties is necessary to define the scope of treaty obligations undertaken by states. The number of international agreements contracted by states grows from year to year, thus incrementally shaping our lives. The interpretation process, hence, has a very concrete impact on how governments assume treaty obligations and in fine on how government policies affect the public’s life. The interpreter has thus a great role to play given its role in shedding light on treaty provisions.

One of the most flexible “tools” available to reach a “desired” interpretation is the notion of object and purpose (O&P) enshrined in the interpretation rule (Art. 31) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). Apart from interpretation itself, the identification of the O&P also determines states’ possibilities for registering reservations or modifying treaties. The scholarship on interpretation is one of the wealthiest fields of international law, yet the treatment of the notion of O&P remains either superficial or fragmentary. The notion has the potential to wield surprising power and influence in hermeneutics; however, it remains mainly unaddressed. 



Given the treatment of the O&P so far in the international legal theory, this thesis aims to assess and clarify the importance, role, uses, and treatment of the notion of O&P by assessing, first, the practice of international courts and tribunals, and second, that of states. The project aims not only to theorise what interpretation should be but also to analyse and report the state of positive law vis-à-vis the O&P and interpretation. One of the broader objectives of this thesis is to contribute to providing more legal stability and increasing the understanding of interpreters and practitioners of the notion of O&P, as well as guiding and orientating them at the time of interpreting treaties. Accordingly, the proposal aims to fill the literature and information gap by providing a cogent analysis of the international practice with regard to the notion of O&P. 



The two materials of this study, the decisions of courts and international tribunals as well as state practice, will thus be assessed in a comparative fashion to ascertain the O&P’s field of possibilities. Thereafter, the data will serve to shape an understanding of the O&P by clarifying the admitted uses of the O&P notion in light of positive law and its uses de lege ferenda