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Published in Stanford Journal of International Law, Vol. 44 (2008).


Citizens of foreign countries are increasingly using international treaties to assert claims against Federal and state governments. As a result, U.S. courts are being asked to determine whether treaties provide litigants with individually enforceable rights. Although courts have no consistent approach to determining whether a treaty gives rise to individually enforceable rights, they often apply the textualist methodology derived from statutory interpretation. However, instead of using textual theories of statutory interpretation, I argue that courts should use intentionalist theories developed from contract interpretation in determining individually enforceable rights under treaties. Two positive arguments and one negative argument support my approach. First, the question of whether a non-party can enforce a treaty is structurally similar to the question of whether a non-party can enforce a contract, but structurally different from the issue of whether there is a private cause of action under a statute. Second, Supreme Court jurisprudence supports the view that treaties are contracts even though they have the effect of statutes. As such, it is appropriate to apply theories of contract interpretation to understanding treaties. Third, arguments used to justify using textualism for purposes of interpreting statutes are not relevant to interpreting treaties.

I suggest that courts use a modified version of the "intent-to-benefit" test derived from contract law in determining whether a treaty is enforceable by a non-party. Under the modified "intent-to-benefit" test, a non-party will have individually enforceable rights and remedies under the treaty if the treaty identifies a class of individuals who are intended beneficiaries of the treaty and if such non-party is within that class of individuals. Applying this test suggests that courts should privilege the drafting history over the ratification history of a treaty in interpreting it.

I apply the modified "intent-to-benefit " test to a case study-the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Supreme Court recently decided in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations does not provide individuals with any remedies, but refused to decide whether the treaty provides individuals with rights. Since that decision, two Federal Courts of Appeals have come to differing conclusions on the question of whether that treaty creates individually enforceable rights. Under the modified "intent-to-benefit," the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations would be found to give rise to individually enforceable rights.

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Individually enforceable rights, Treaties