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The Latin phrase rebus sic stantibus, meaning “as things stand,” is encountered most commonly in international law, where nations agree to abide by treaties as long as the circumstances remain unchanged. Nations can choose to withdraw from treaties, citing this as the reason. Although this is a violation of the basic premise of contract law that people must keep promises unless the terms of a contract are actively violated, in international law there is some special leeway.
In a simple example, two nations could establish a fisheries treaty, with one country giving the other access to its territorial waters for limited fishing in exchange for concessions on another matter. A change in the composition of the fishery could lead one party or the other to resign from the treaty, saying that the change in circumstances renders the agreement no longer applicable or useful. This would be a use of the rebus sic stantibus argument, saying that conditions have changed.
This term is usually not encountered in the language of a contract or treaty. Rather than being a legal clause structured into the agreement, it is a concept people can rely upon as a defense when choosing to exit a treaty. The standards in international law are different from other areas of the law, however. People cannot use rebus sic stantibus to duck out of personal contracts and agreements.
Critics of the use of this out for international treaties argue that it destabilizes the value of treaties and makes it harder for them to enforce. If nations can cry rebus sic stantibus to duck out of treaties no longer to their advantage, this undermines the importance of treaty agreements. A treaty can be structured in a way designed to preempt this argument by specifically outlining the circumstances where it will remain in force, and nations can also consider alternatives like renegotiating a treaty if circumstances change, rather than walking away from it.
Before a nation will consider using a rebus sic stantibus argument to cancel a treaty, other legal options will usually be considered. Attorneys specializing in international law and related matters can provide assistance with determining the best course of action to move forward with, ranging from abandoning the treaty to requesting a mediated meeting to discuss development of a new treaty better suited to the change in circumstances. The international community may also be involved if there are concerns about global security issues.
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