This article explores the legal principles that govern the interpretation of “secondary instruments” in international law. A “secondary instrument” under international law is, for the purposes of this article, a written document adopted by a body empowered by a treaty to take action with respect to the treaty, but which is not itself a treaty. Such instruments find increasing application in international law. The article specifically examines the interpretation of secondary instruments arising in five settings in international practice: the United Nations Security Council, the International Maritime Organization, the International Seabed Authority, the International Whaling Commission, and conferences/meetings of the parties under multilateral treaties. This selection of practice will serve to illustrate principles of interpretation across a range of international institutional settings for the purpose of determining the rights and obligations of state-parties to a treaty regime.
Ukraine, upon giving up the nuclear arsenal left on its territory by the USSR, entered in 1994 into a Memorandum on Security Assurances with the United Kingdom, United States and Russian Federation (Budapest Memorandum). Since the crisis began between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in February 2014, a number of States have invoked the Budapest Memorandum. Unclear, however, is whether this instrument constituted legal obligations among its Parties or, instead, is a political declaration having no legal effect. The distinction between political instruments and legal instruments is a recurring question in inter-State relations and claims practice. The present article considers the Budapest Memorandum in light of the question of general legal interest – namely, how do we distinguish between the legal and the political instrument?