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Explanatory Note by the UNCITRAL Secretariat on the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods

This note has been prepared by the Secretariat of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law for informational purposes; it is not an official commentary on the Convention. It is reprinted from United Nations document V.89-53886 (June 1989) with the permission of UNCITRAL.


1. The United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods provides a uniform text of law for international sales of goods. The Convention was prepared by the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) and adopted by a diplomatic conference on 11 April 1980.

2. Preparation of a uniform law for the international sale of goods began in 1930 at the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) in Rome. After a long interruption in the work as a result of the Second World War, the draft was submitted to a diplomatic conference in The Hague in 1964, which adopted two conventions, one on the international sale of goods and the other on the formation of contracts for the international sale of goods.

3. Almost immediately upon the adoption of the two conventions there was widespread criticism of their provisions as reflecting primarily the legal traditions and economic realities of continental Western Europe, which was the region that had most actively contributed to their preparation. As a result, one of the first tasks undertaken by UNCITRAL on its organization in 1968 was to enquire of States whether or not they intended to adhere to those conventions and the reasons for their positions. In the light of the responses received, UNCITRAL decided to study the two conventions to ascertain which modifications might render them capable of wider acceptance by countries of different legal, social and economic systems. The result of this study was the adoption by diplomatic conference on 11 April 1980 of the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods, which combines the subject matter of the two prior conventions.

4. UNCITRAL's success in preparing a Convention with wider acceptability is evidenced by the fact that the original eleven States for which the Convention came into force on 1 January 1988 included States from every geographical region, every stage of economic development and every major legal, social and economic system. The original eleven States were: Argentina, China, Egypt, France, Hungary, Italy, Lesotho, Syria, United States, Yugoslavia and Zambia.

5. [As of 31 January 1997, an additional thirty-seven States, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Guinea, Iraq, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Mexico, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, had become a party to the Convention.]

6. The Convention is divided into four parts. Part One deals with the scope of application of the Convention and the general provisions. Part Two contains the rules governing the formation of contracts for the international sale of goods. Part Three deals with the substantive rights and obligations of buyer and seller arising from the contract. Part Four contains the final clauses of the Convention concerning such matters as how and when it comes into force, the reservations and declarations that are permitted and the application of the Convention to international sales where both States concerned have the same or similar law on the subject.

Part One. Scope of application and general provisions

A. Scope of application

7. The articles on scope of application state both what is included in the coverage of the Convention and what is excluded from it. The provisions on inclusion are the most important. The Convention applies to contracts of sale of goods between parties whose places of business are in different States and either both of those States are Contracting States or the rules of private international law lead to the law of a Contracting State. A few States have availed themselves of the authorization in article 95 to declare that they would apply the Convention only in the former and not in the latter of these two situations. As the Convention becomes more widely adopted, the practical significance of such a declaration will diminish.

8. The final clauses make two additional restrictions on the territorial scope of application that will be relevant to a few States. One applies only if a State is a party to another international agreement that contains provisions concerning matters governed by this Convention; the other permits States that have the same or similar domestic law of sales to declare that the Convention does not apply between them.

9. Contracts of sale are distinguished from contracts for services in two respects by article 3. A contract for the supply of goods to be manufactured or produced is considered to be a sale unless the party who orders the goods undertakes to supply a substantial part of the materials necessary for their manufacture or production. When the preponderant part of the obligations of the party who furnishes the goods consists in the supply of labour or other services, the Convention does not apply.

10. The Convention contains a list of types of sales that are excluded from the Convention, either because of the purpose of the sale (goods bought for personal, family or household use), the nature of the sale (sale by auction, on execution or otherwise by law) or the nature of the goods (stocks, shares, investment securities, negotiable instruments, money, ships, vessels, hovercraft, aircraft or electricity). In many States some or all of such sales are governed by special rules reflecting their special nature.

11. Several articles make clear that the subject matter of the Convention is restricted to formation of the contract and the rights and duties of the buyer and seller arising from such a contract. In particular, the Convention is not concerned with the validity of the contract, the effect which the contract may have on the property in the goods sold or the liability of the seller for death or personal injury caused by the goods to any person.

B. Party autonomy

12. The basic principle of contractual freedom in the international sale of goods is recognized by the provision that permits the parties to exclude the application of this Convention or derogate from or vary the effect of any of its provisions. The exclusion of the Convention would most often result from the choice by the parties of the law of a non-contracting State or of the domestic law of a contracting State to be the law applicable to the contract. Derogation from the Convention would occur whenever a provision in the contract provided a different rule from that found in the Convention.

C. Interpretation of the Convention

13. This Convention for the unification of the law governing the international sale of goods will better fullfill its purpose if it is interpreted in a consistent manner in all legal systems. Great care was taken in its preparation to make it as clear and easy to understand as possible. Nevertheless, disputes will arise as to its meaning and application. When this occurs, all parties, including domestic courts and arbitral tribunals, are admonished to observe its international character and to promote uniformity in its application and the observance of good faith in international trade. In particular, when a question concerning a matter governed by this Convention is not expressly settled in it, the question is to be settled in conformity with the general principles on which the Convention is based. Only in the absence of such principles should the matter be settled in conformity with the law applicable by virtue of the rules of private international law.

D. Interpretation of the contract; usages

14. The Convention contains provisions on the manner in which statements and conduct of a party are to be interpreted in the context of the formation of the contract or its implementation. Usages agreed to by the parties, practices they have established between themselves and usages of which the parties knew or ought to have known and which are widely known to, and regularly observed by, parties to contracts of the type involved in the particular trade concerned may all be binding on the parties to the contract of sale.

E. Form of the contract

15. The Convention does not subject the contract of sale to any requirement as to form. In particular, article 11 provides that no written agreement is necessary for the conclusion of the contract. However, if the contract is in writing and it contains a provision requiring any modification or termination by agreement to be in writing, article 29 provides that the contract may not be otherwise modified or terminated by agreement. The only exception is that a party may be precluded by his conduct from asserting such a provision to the extent that the other person has relied on that conduct.

16. In order to accommodate those States whose legislation requires contracts of sale to be concluded in or evidenced by writing, article 96 entitles those States to declare that neither article 11 not the exception to article 29 applies where any party to the contract has his place of business in that State.

Part Two. Formation of the contract

17. Part Two of the Convention deals with a number of questions that arise in the formation of the contract by the exchange of an offer and an acceptance. When the formation of the contract takes place in this manner, the contract is concluded when the acceptance of the offer becomes effective.

18. In order for a proposal for concluding a contract to constitute an offer, it must be addressed to one or more specific persons and it must be sufficiently definite. For the proposal to be sufficiently definite, it must indicate the goods and expressly or implicitly fix or make provisions for determining the quantity and the price.

19. The Convention takes a middle position between the doctrine of the revocability of the offer until acceptance and its general irrevocability for some period of time. The general rule is that an offer may be revoked. However, the revocation much reach the offeree before he has dispatched an acceptance. Moreover, an offer cannot be revoked if it indicates that it is irrevocable, which it may do by stating a fixed time for acceptance or otherwise. Furthermore, an offer may not be revoked if it was reasonable for the offeree to rely on the offer as being irrevocable and the offeree has acted in reliance on the offer.

20. Acceptance of an offer may be made by means of a statement or other conduct of the offeree indicating assent to the offer that is communicated to the offerer. However, in some cases the acceptance may consist of performing an act, such as dispatch of the goods or payment of the price. Such an act would normally be effective as an acceptance the moment the act was performed.

21. A frequent problem in contract formation, perhaps especially in regard to contracts of sale of goods, arises out of a reply to an offer that purports to be an acceptance but contains additional or different terms. Under the Convention, if the additional or different terms do not materially alter the terms of the offer, the reply constitutes an acceptance, unless the offeror without undue delay objects to those terms. If he does not object, the terms of the contract are the terms of the offer with the modifications contained in the acceptance.

22. If the additional or different terms do materially alter the terms of the contract, the reply constitutes a counter-offer that must in turn be accepted for a contract to be concluded. Additional or different terms relating, among other things, to the price, payment, quality and quantity of the goods, place and time of delivery, extent of one party's liability to the other or settlement of disputes are considered to alter the terms of the offer materially.

Part Three. Sale of goods

A. Obligations of the seller

23. The general obligations of the seller are to deliver the goods, hand over any documents relating to them and transfer the property in the goods, as required by the contract and this Convention. The Convention provides supplementary rules for use in the absence of contractual agreement as to when, where and how the seller must perform these obligations.

24. The Convention provides a number of rules that implement the seller's obligations in respect of the quality of the goods. In general, the seller must deliver goods that are of the quantity, quality and description required by the contract and that are contained or packaged in the manner required by the contract. One set of rules of particular importance in international sales of goods involves the seller's obligation to deliver goods that are free from any right or claim of a third party, including rights based on industrial property or other intellectual property.

25. In connection with the seller's obligations in regard to the quality of the goods, the Convention contains provisions on the buyer's obligation to inspect the goods. He must give notice of any lack of conformity with the contract within a reasonable time after he has discovered it or ought to have discovered it, and at the latest two years from the date on which the goods were actually handed over to the buyer, unless this time limit is inconsistent with a contractual period of guarantee.

B. Obligations of the buyer

26. Compared to the obligations of the seller, the general obligations of the buyer are less extensive and relatively simple; they are to pay the price for the goods and take delivery of them as required by the contract and the Convention. The Convention provides supplementary rules for use in the absence of contractual agreement as to how the price is to be determined and where and when the buyer should perform his obligations to pay the price.

C. Remedies for breach of contract

27. The remedies of the buyer for breach of contract by the seller are set forth in connection with the obligations of the seller and the remedies of the seller are set forth in connection with the obligations of the buyer. This makes it easier to use and understand the Convention.

28. The general pattern of remedies is the same in both cases. If all the required conditions are fulfilled, the aggrieved party may require performance of the other party's obligations, claim damages or avoid the contract. The buyer also has the right to reduce the price where the goods delivered do not conform with the contract.

29. Among the more important limitations on the right of an aggrieved party to claim a remedy is the concept of fundamental breach. For a breach of contract to be fundamental, it must result in such detriment to the other party as substantially to deprive him of what he is entitled to expect under the contract, unless the result was neither foreseen by the party in breach nor foreseeable by a reasonable person of the same kind in the same circumstances. A buyer can require the delivery of substitute goods only if the goods delivered were not in conformity with the contract and the lack of conformity constituted a fundamental breach of contract. The existence of a fundamental breach is one of the two circumstances that justifies a declaration of avoidance of a contract by the aggrieved party; the other circumstance being that, in the case of non-delivery of the goods by the seller or non-payment of the price or failure to take delivery by the buyer, the party in breach fails to perform within a reasonable period of time fixed by the aggrieved party.

30. Other remedies may be restricted by special circumstances. For example, if the goods do not conform with the contract, the buyer may require the seller to remedy the lack of conformity by repair, unless this is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances. A party cannot recover damages that he could have mitigated by taking the proper measures. A party may be exempted from paying damages by virtue of an impediment beyond his control.

D. Passing of risk

31. Determining the exact moment when the risk of loss or damage to the goods passes from the seller to the buyer is of great importance in contracts for the international sale of goods. Parties may regulate the issue in their contract either by an express provision or by the use of a trade term. However, for the frequent case where the contract does not contain such a provision, the Convention sets forth a complete set of rules.

32. The two special situations contemplated by the Convention are when the contract of sale involves carriage of the goods and when the goods are sold while in transit. In all other cases the risk passes to the buyer when he takes over the goods or from the time when the goods are placed at his disposal and he commits a breach of contract by failing to take delivery, whichever comes first. In the frequent case when the contract relates to goods that are not then identified, they must be identified to the contract before they can be considered to be placed at the disposal of the buyer and the risk of their loss can be considered to have passed to him.

E. Suspension of performance and anticipatory breach

33. The Convention contains special rules for the situation in which, prior to the date on which performance is due, it becomes apparent that one of the parties will not perform a substantial part of his obligations or will commit a fundamental breach of contract. A distinction is drawn between those cases in which the other party may suspend his own performance of the contract but the contract remains in existence awaiting future events and those cases in which he may declare the contract avoided.

F. Exemption from liability to pay damages

34. When a party fails to perform any of his obligations due to an impediment beyond his control that he could not reasonably have been expected to take into account at the time of the conclusion of the contract and that he could not have avoided or overcome, he is exempted from paying damages. This exemption may also apply if the failure is due to the failure of a third person whom he has engaged to perform the whole or a part of the contract. However, he is subject to any other remedy, including reduction of the price, if the goods were defective in some way.

G. Preservation of the goods

35. The Convention imposes on both parties the duty to preserve any goods in their possession belonging to the other party. Such a duty is of even greater importance in an international sale of goods where the other party is from a foreign country and may not have agents in the country where the goods are located. Under certain circumstances the party in possession of the goods may sell them, or may even be required to sell them. A party selling the goods has the right to retain out of the proceeds of sale an amount equal to the reasonable expenses of preserving the goods and of selling them and must account to the other party for the balance.

Part Four. Final clauses

36. The final clauses contain the usual provisions relating to the Secretary-General as depositary and providing that the Convention is subject to ratification, acceptance or approval by those States that signed it by 30 September 1981, that it is open to accession by all States that are not signatory States and that the text is equally authentic in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

37. The Convention permits a certain number of declarations. Those relative to scope of application and the requirement as to a written contract have been mentioned above. There is a special declaration for States that have different systems of law governing contracts of sale in different parts of their territory. Finally, a State may declare that it will not be bound by Part II on formation of contracts or Part III on the rights and obligations of the buyer and seller. This latter declaration was included as part of the decision to combine into one convention the subject matter of the two 1964 Hague Conventions.

Further information can be obtained from

UNCITRAL Secretariat
P.O. Box 500
Vienna International Centre
A-1400 Vienna

Telephone: (43-1) 26060*4060 or 4061
Telefax: (43-1) 26060*5813
Telex: 135612 uno a
E-mail: uncitral@unov.un.or.at
Internet Home Page: http://www.un.or.at/uncitral

Pace Law School Institute of International Commercial Law - Last updated May 26, 1998
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