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Secret treaty

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Title: Secret treaty  
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Subject: Li–Lobanov Treaty, Secret treaty of alliance between Peru and Bolivia of 1873, Oñate treaty, UKUSA Agreement, Treaties
Collection: Secrecy, Secret Treaties, Treaties
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Secret treaty

A secret treaty is "an international agreement in which the contracting parties have agreed, either in the treaty instrument or separately, to conceal its existence or at least its substance from other states and the public."[1]

According to one compilation of secret treaties published in 2004, there have been 593 secret treaties negotiated by 110 countries and independent political entities since the year 1521.[2] "Secret treaties were a central instrument of balance-of-power diplomacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries," but are rare today.[3]


  • History 1
  • Early efforts at reform 2
  • Decline in modern times 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • See also 6


The "elaborate alliance systems" among European powers, "each secured by a network of secret treaties, financial arrangements, and 'military understandings'" are commonly cited as one of the causes of World War I.[4] For example, the Reinsurance Treaty of June 1887 between the German Empire and the Russian Empire (negotiated by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in order for Germany to avoid a two-front war), was a "highly secret treaty" in which the two powers pledged for a three-year to remain neutral should the other become involved in a war with a third country, unless Germany attacked Russia's longstanding ally France or Russia attacked Germany's longstanding ally Austria-Hungary.[5]

The use of "secret agreements and undertakings between several allies or between one state and another" continued throughout World War I; some of them were irreconcilably inconsistent, "leaving a bitter legacy of dispute" at the end of the war.[6] Some important secret treaties of this era include the secretly concluded treaty of Ottoman–German alliance, concluded at Constantinople on August 2, 1914.[7][8] That treaty provided that Germany and Turkey would remain neutral in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but if Russia intervened "with active military measures" the two countries would become military allies.[9][8] Another important secret treaty was the Treaty of London, concluded on April 26, 1915, in which Italy was promised certain territorial concessions in exchange for joining the war on the Triple Entente (Allied) side.[10] Another secret treaty was the Treaty of Bucharest, concluded between Romania and the Triple Entente powers (Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) on August 17, 1916; under this treaty, Romania pledged to attack Austria-Hungary and not to seek a separate peace in exchange for certain territorial gains.[11] Article 16 of that treaty provided that "The present arrangement shall be held secret."[12]

Early efforts at reform

After the outbreak of World War I, public opinion in many countries demanded more open diplomacy.[13] After the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Soviets to power, Leon Trotsky published the secret treaties that the Tsarist government had made with the Entente powers, including the Treaty of London and the Constantinople Agreement, and proposed the abolition of secret diplomacy.[14][15][16] This move caused international embarrassment and "a strong, sustained reaction against secret diplomacy."[17]

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was an opponent of secret diplomacy, making the first point of his Fourteen Points (set forth in a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, after the U.S. entered the war)—the abolition of secret diplomacy, which he viewed as a threat to peace.[18][19][20] Wilson "dissociated the United States from the Allies' earlier secret commitments and sought to abolish them forever once the war had been won."[21] The Fourteen Points were based on a draft paper prepared by Walter Lippmann and his colleagues on the Inquiry, Isaiah Bowman, Sidney Mezes, and David Hunter Miller.[22] Lippmann's draft was a direct response to the secret treaties, which Lippman had been shown by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker.[22] Lippman's task was "to take the secret treaties, analyze the parts which were tolerable, and separate them from those which we regarded as intolerable, and then develop a position which conceded as much to the Allies as it could, but took away the poison. ... It was all keyed upon the secret treaties. That's what decided what went into the Fourteen Points."[22]

Wilson repeated his Fourteen Points at the Versailles peace conference, where he proposed a commitment to "open covenants ... openly arrived at" and the elimination of "private international understandings of any kind [so that] diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view."[23] The Wilsonian position was codified in Article 17 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which mandated that all League of Nations members states register every treaty or international agreement with the League secretariat, and Article 18 of the Covenant, which provided that no treaty was binding unless so registered.,[24][25][26] This led to the rise of the treaty registration system, "although not every treaty that would have been subject to registration was duly registered."[27]

One of the most infamous secret treaties in history was the secret additional protocol to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939 between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, negotiated by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.[28] The pact itself, a ten-year nonaggression agreement, was public, but the Additional Secret Protocol (superseded by a similar subsequent secret protocol, the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty, the next month) carved up spheres of influence in Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, placing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Bessarabia, and eastern Poland in the Soviet sphere, and western Poland and Lithuania in the German sphere.[28] The existence of the secret protocol was not revealed until 1989; when it became public, it caused outrage in the Baltic states.[28][29][30]

Decline in modern times

After World War II, the registration system that had begun with the League of Nations was continued through the United Nations.[31] Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations, based on Article 18 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, provides that:

(1) Every treaty and every international agreement entered into by any Member of the United Nations after the present Charter comes into force shall as soon as possible be registered with the Secretariat and published by it.
(2) No party to any such treaty or international agreement which has not been registered in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1 of this Article may invoke that treaty or agreement before any organ of the United Nations.[32][33]

Similarly, Article 80 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (which entered into force in 1980) requires a party to the convention to registered any treaty to which it is a party once the treaty enters into force.[34][35]

Over the years, the UN has developed an extensive treaty-registration system, detailed in its Repertory of Practice and Treaty Handbook.[36] From December 1946 through July 2013, the United Nations Secretariat recorded over 200,000 treaties published in the United Nations Treaty Series pursuant to Article 102 of the UN Charter.[37] Still, today "a substantial number of treaties are mot registered, mainly due to practical reasons, such as the administrative or ephemeral charter of some treaties."[38] Non-registered treaties are not necessarily secret, since such treaties are often published elsewhere.[39] Some true secret treaties still exist, however, mostly in the context of agreements to establish foreign military bases.[40]

According to Dörr & Schmalenbach's commentary on the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, "the fact that today secret treaties do not play an essential role is less a result of [Article 102 of the UN Charter] than of an overall change in the conduct of international relations."[41]

According to Charles Lipson:

there are powerful reasons why secret treaties are rare today. The first and most fundamental is the rise of democratic states with principles of public accountability and some powers of legislative oversight. Secret treaties are difficult to reconcile with these democratic procedures. The second reason is that ever since the United States entered World War I, it has opposed secret agreements as a matter of basic principle and has enshrined its position in the peace settlements of both world wars. The decline of centralized foreign policy institutions, which worked closely with a handful of political leaders, sharply limits the uses of secret treaties. Foreign ministries no long hold the same powers to commit states to alliances, to shift those alliance, to divide conquered territory, and to hide such critical commitments from public view. The discretionary powers of a Bismark or Metternich have no equivalent in modern Western states.[42]

With private international understandings "virtually eliminated" among democratic states, informal agreements "live on as their closest modern substitutes."[43]


  1. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1341, note 11.
  2. ^ Chad M. Kahl, International Relations, International Security, and Comparative Politics: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources (Greenwood, 2008), pp. 206-07.
  3. ^ Lipson, pp. 237-28.
  4. ^ Elmer Belmont Potter, Sea Power: A Naval History (2d ed., United States Naval Institute, 1981), p. 198.
  5. ^ Richard F. Hamilton, "The European Wars: 1815-1914" in The Origins of World War I (eds. Richard F. Hamilton & Holger H. Herwig); Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 79-80.
  6. ^ Grenville, p. 61.
  7. ^ Grenville, pp. 62-63.
  8. ^ a b Treaty of Alliance Between Germany and Turkey 2 August, 1914.
  9. ^ Grenville, pp. 62-63.
  10. ^ Grenville, p. 63.
  11. ^ Grenville, pp. 63-66.
  12. ^ Grenville, p. 66.
  13. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  14. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  15. ^ Charles M. Dobbs & Spencer C. Tucker, "Brest Litovsk, Treaty of (3 March 1918)" in Encyclopedia of World War I: A Political, Social, and Military History (ed. Spencer C. Tucker: ABC-CLIO, 2005), p. 225.
  16. ^ Lipson, p. 328.
  17. ^ Lipson, p. 329 and note 82.
  18. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  19. ^ Glenn P. Hastedt, "Fourteen Points" in Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy (Facts on File, 2004), pp. 170-71.
  20. ^ Lipson, p. 329.
  21. ^ Lipson, p. 329.
  22. ^ a b c Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House (Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 160-63.
  23. ^ Lipson, p. 329.
  24. ^ Lipson, p. 329.
  25. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  26. ^ Covenant of the League of Nations, arts. 17 & 18.
  27. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  28. ^ a b c Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (Vintage Books, 2007), p. 50-56.
  29. ^ David J. Smith et al., The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (Routledge, 2002), pp. 44-45.
  30. ^ John Crazplicka, Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space (Duke University Press, 2004; eds. Daniel Walkowit &, Lisa Maya Knauer).
  31. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  32. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1340.
  33. ^ Charter of the United Nations, art. 102.
  34. ^ Anthony Aust, Modern Treaty Law and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 275.
  35. ^ Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 80.
  36. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, pp. 1340-41.
  37. ^ Overview, United Nations Treaty Collection.
  38. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1341.
  39. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, pp. 1340-41.
  40. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1341, note 12.
  41. ^ Dörr & Schmalenbach, p. 1341.
  42. ^ Lipson, p. 328.
  43. ^ Lipson, p. 329.


  • Charles Lipson, "Why Are Some International Agreements Informal?" in International Law and International Relations: An International Organization Reader, eds. Beth A. Simmons & Richard H. Steinberg (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • John Ashley Soames Grenville, The Major International Treaties of the Twentieth Century: A History and Guide with Texts, Vol. 1 (Taylor & Francis, 2001).
  • Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: A Commentary, eds. Oliver Dörr & Kirsten Schmalenbach (Springer, 2012).

See also

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