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A treaty is an international agreement between countries or international entities (eg the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, or World Bank) that's legally binding under international law.
In New Zealand, the power to enter into or withdraw from a treaty sits with the Executive (in practice this is the Prime Minister and Cabinet). However, multilateral treaties and major bilateral treaties of 'particular significance' are also presented to the House of Representatives for select committee consideration.
Treaties are often referred to as ‘agreements’ or 'conventions'. The actual term ‘treaty’ is usually reserved for treaties of political significance, such as those relating to an alliance or friendship.
All the treaties that New Zealand is party to are publicly available on New Zealand Treaties Online(external link). MFAT manages this site in keeping with our responsibilities for maintaining records of all treaties that New Zealand is party to (or in the process of becoming a party to).
It's the official record of New Zealand's existing, binding international treaty obligations and current treaty negotiations. It also includes all of New Zealand’s treaty obligations going back to the 1800s, including many that have now ended but are of value historically or as context for treaties that have succeeded them.
The treaty-making process
MFAT's Legal Division oversees the process by which our Government enters into or withdraws from treaties. We advise the Government and its agencies, we undertake negotiations that lead to treaties being established or changed.
Here's an overview of the treaty-making process for multilateral treaties and major bilateral treaties of particular significance:
- Negotiation: New Zealand officials participate in international negotiations resulting in the text of an agreement being finalised.
- National Interest Analysis: the lead government agency prepares a Cabinet paper and a National Interest Analysis (NIA), which sets out the advantages and disadvantages for New Zealand of becoming a party to the agreement or deciding to withdraw.
- Signing: Cabinet approves the final text of the agreement – giving authority to sign the agreement – and also approves the NIA. At this stage, the treaty is agreed but not yet legally binding.
- Presentation: MFAT presents the treaty and its corresponding NIA to the House of Representatives.
- Consideration: a select committee considers the treaty and the NIA. The committee has 15 sitting days in which to report back to the House. If it has recommendations to Government, a Government response to these must be tabled within 90 days of the report.
- Ratification: formal documents are exchanged with the other countries or organisations involved, to bring the treaty into force for New Zealand. These documents confirm domestic procedures have been completed and that the treaty is now in force.
The Foreign Affairs Minister decides whether a bilateral treaty is a ‘major bilateral treaty of particular significance’. If it isn't, the Minister will approve a ‘parliamentary treaty examination waiver’. This gives the Executive authority to become party to the agreement without involving the House of Representatives and select committee.