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Work In Progress

31.01.2019 WIP Seminar “Minimal Participation Criteria in International Treaties: Explaining Their Impact on Multilateral Cooperation” by Dr Arnold, Dr Atkinson and Dr Schulz

1 March 2019

On the 31st of January, the ISRU met to discuss Dr. Christian Arnold, Dr. Douglas Atkinson & Dr. Carsten Schulz’s Work-In-Progress paper entitled “Minimal Participation Criteria in International Treaties: Explaining Their Impact on Multilateral Cooperation” in the first ISRU Work-in-Progress Seminar of 2019.

Dr. Christian Arnold is a Lecturer of Politics at Cardiff University. His research looks predominately at institutions of governance with a key focus on quantitative methods and natural language processing. 

Dr. Douglas Atkinson, also of Cardiff University, is a Research Fellow in the School of Law and Politics. Both Dr. Arnold and Atkinson were part of the team that launched the Cardiff University Centre for Politics and Legal Analytics in 2018. The CPLA is an innovative research centre, based in the School of Law and Politics, which aims to use previously untapped data sources and cutting-edge research methods. 

Dr. Carsten Schulz is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and co-editor of the bilingual political science journal Revista de Ciencia Política. His research interests include the historical evolution of international order and the international relations of Latin American states.

In their article Dr. Arnold, Atkinson and Schulz want to respond toa classic dilemma faced by those states that want to engage in international cooperation; ‘incentives for free-riding can undermine collective efforts that would otherwise improve the welfare of everyone involved.’ This paper looks at the way in which international institutions are often designed rationally to mitigate collective action problems. Much of the existing literature, that looks predominately at the differences in the scope, flexibility, precision, and delegation of treaty provisions. The authors believe that this neglects critical aspects of the politics of International Treaties. In this paper, the authors emphasise the role of Minimal Participation Criteria in international treaties and their impact on multilateral cooperation. 

Minimal participation criteria are a form of threshold that specify a minimum number of ratifying parties necessary for the agreement to enter into force. There are different forms of these minimal participation criteria. Some treaties require quite a large number of states to ratify them. An example of this is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which needed to ratified by at least 60 states.In certain multilateral agreements, minimum participation criteria refer not to a certain number of states but rather specific states that must ratify the treaty for it to be legally binding. For example, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty required, not only, that the Treaty be ratified by 40 states but also by the UK, US, and USSR in particular. 

Their analysis suggests that the ratification process of multi-lateral agreements goes far beyond just a question of domestic political will,  attempts toassimilate to international norms or questions as to the level of flexibility of the treaty provision. These are aspects often raised in much previous scholarship on multi-lateral agreements. The authors contribute to the literature by emphasis the role of a particular aspect of treaty design. Furthermore, the authors place an understanding of the strategic incentive from threshold public goods provision at the centre of their theoretical development. In ratifying multilateral agreements, governments agree to both follow the provisions internationally and implement the policies domestically; therefore, ratification is considered to have cost in terms of sovereignty and compliance. 

In their model, they distinguish between cost and benefit considerations in international cooperation. They suggest four groups; those states that will undoubtedly benefit from cooperation, those that will benefit marginally and the “free-riders”; those that are unwilling to incur any adaptation costs, but they are willing to benefit, and finally all those states that ratified the Treaty sometime later (although feature quite minimally in their analysis). These four different groups are characterised by four different ways that government could view the costs and benefits of multilateral cooperation. In scenario A, the treaty provides the government with few gains, but at low costs. In scenario B, the gains for the government are high, and the costs remain low. In the third scenario, scenario C, there is little to gain from a costly agreement. Finally, there can be agreements with high gains and high costs (scenario D). 

Not only does this paper seek to explain when and why minimum thresholds are incorporated into treaties but also why such thresholds differ between Treaties. Through their paper’s analysis of the complete ratification record of all UN associated multilateral agreements since 1945 (all 535 of them), they seek to understand how such thresholds affect the ratification process. The authors claim that ratification thresholds fundamentally affect the strategic character of international cooperation and such thresholds seem to be an effective means to prevent freeriding in multilateral cooperation. This is because the externalities in the Treaty provisions are only provided once the threshold is met. 

Following their presentation at the ISRU seminar, Dr. Arnold and Dr. Atkinson were kind enough to sit down with me and discuss their research and this project in greater depth. Unfortunately, Dr. Schulz, being based in Chile, was unable to join us!


You said that minimum participation criteria were something that had been under-researched or even relatively ignored in terms of multilateral agreements. I was wondering what it was that made you think we need to look at this because there is something interesting that no one is talking about here? 


Well actually, this project and its conception is something that goes back to my Ph.D. I wrote my Ph.D. on the Latin American Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur). One of the interesting aspects of this community was that despite so many agreements being reached at the intergovernmental level, many of these were never implemented at national level. My thesis argued that this was because of a particularity in the institutional functioning of Mercosur which dictated that agreements only came into force once they had been incorporated into the national framework of the last member state to do so. This clause was intended to prevent free-riding; however, it actually acted as a de-facto VETO.

So during my post-doc, I decided to explore whether or not we could observe familiar phenomena in other international organisations and I came across the minimal participation criteria. There is some literature on this in terms of global environmental agreements, but despite the fact they are present in the majority of international treaties, it is something that is under-researched especially in International Relations scholarship. However, I then left academia for a couple of years, and it was not until I learned from Carsten, with whom I became friends when we were both doing our PhDs in Oxford, that he had just received a substantial funding grant to do extensive data analysis on the 535 UN associated treaties signed since 1945, representing over 100,000 data points. With Carsten’s access to the data and my theoretical framework already elaborated, we asked Douglas if he also wanted to be part of the research project, as he so clearly had the relevant expertise and it is such a large and ambitious project.


I was really excited about the prospect of this project.  I have previously conducted research on how the issue over which a war is being fought can impact the length and protraction of war but also how the war is fought. What this means is that I am interested in looking at how previously overlooked aspects of a particular issue can have significant consequences in terms of international politics. This is clearly the case in terms of these minimum participation criteria. Equally, as someone who has always been interested in both quantitative and qualitative research, this kind of large-scale data analysis coupled with in-depth qualitative analysis of some of the wording of these treaties really interested me. 


It is clear that this is a massive data set, and that you are in the middle of analysing this data, but are there certain trends or potential phenomena that you are already starting to see emerge even at this stage?


We are already starting to see certain trends in the data, but it is far too early to make any concrete claims. These trends seem to suggest the different groups of states we were talking about in terms of ratification. What we tend to see is that the first group of states ratify a treaty very quickly (this tends to be quite a large group but not large enough the treaty to come into force). This is followed by another small grouping of states which ratify the treaty, because, although they weren’t as keen as the first group they become more likely to ratify the treaty knowing others have already done so. Then, we tend to see a third group emerge that push the number above the minimum participation criteria. We also tend to see another cluster of states ratify the treaty sometime later and this, depending on the lifespan of the treaty, is often linked to the creation of new states such as following decolonization or the independence of Central and Eastern Europe. 


Another phenomenon that we have observed in the data is the use of specific minimum participation criteria again and again. Certain numbers reoccur constantly. One of the avenues that we are exploring is the potential that this is in fact down to ‘copy’ and ‘pasting’ of former treaties by lawmakers. This idea of copy and pasting in treaty-making has been observed with regard to other aspects of treaties, but it seems to us that minimum participation criteria are often recycled from previous treaties. Also, we intend to look at the differences in the minimum participation criteria used in different issue areas, such as environmental treaties, or Global Commons Regimes (GCRs) etc. 


With that in mind, where do you see this research as going? Is there a specific audience you feel this project would particularly appeal to? 


Because this is about such an essential aspect of International Politics, we feel it has real broad levels of appeal as a project. It feeds into questions already been discussed in environmental politics. However, it also suggests that these criteria work in preventing freeriding and this is a significant development in International Relations scholarship. 


Also, I think it’s important to note that this research, with some of the insights about international treaties and the way they are written, could make a really interesting contribution


Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this research, but also for coming to the ISRU to speak to us about this exciting project! We look forward to hearing about the development of the project

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