Guide last updated by Hester Swift, June 2020
We also recommend the following online research guides for international law.
The United Nations (UN) was established in 1945 after the collapse of its forerunner, the League of Nations. Its purpose is to safeguard international peace and security, to promote justice and international law, to protect human rights and to foster cooperation between sovereign states in tackling social and economic problems worldwide. Participation is now almost universal, with 193 member states.
The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Library has a good collection of scholarly commentary on the work of the UN. It holds UN documents and publications where they are of legal interest, and subscribes to HeinOnline's United Nations Law Collection. IALS Library is not a UN depository: the nearest UN depository libraries are the British Library and LSE Library.
This research guide is structured by type of source - treaties, cases, books and so on - rather than by subject; for an introduction to researching particular subjects, such as human rights, or peace and security, see the research guides produced by the UN's own Dag Hammarskjöld Library.
The UN has six principal organs, as laid down in Article 7 of its founding Charter:
The General Assembly: a deliberative, policy-making body, in which all member states are represented. It has six main committees, the Sixth Committee being the one which deals with legal matters. The International Law Commission is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly.
The Security Council: the UN institution primarily responsible for maintaining international peace and security; it has five permanent members, plus ten members elected for two-year terms.
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): manages the UN's economic and social development work and draws up policy in this area; has numerous subsidiary bodies, such as the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and the Commission on the Status of Women.
The International Court of Justice: the UN's primary judicial body, sometimes known as the World Court; it issues rulings on disputes between states (who participate voluntarily) and gives advisory opinions to the UN and its specialised agencies; its structure, functions and procedures are set out in chapter XIV of the UN Charter, in the Court's Statute, in practice directions and in court rules; non-members of the UN may become parties to the ICJ, or may submit themselves to its jurisdiction in specific cases.
The Secretariat: this is the UN's main administrative organ, staffed by public servants who carry out the day-to-day work of the UN; it is headed by the Secretary-General.
The Trusteeship Council: set up after the Second World War to administer various territories and oversee their transition to self-government; suspended its activities in 1994, when the last of the trust territories became independent.
As well as the six central organs, the UN has a large number of specialised agencies, programmes, offices and funds; together, the central organs and other bodies constitute what is known as the 'UN System'. The specialised agencies are bodies such as the International Labour Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Monetary Fund, which are linked to the UN by cooperative agreements. Other entities within the UN System include the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme, among many others.
The scope of this research guide is largely restricted to the core UN institutions. However, IALS Library's collections do include som material relating to parts of the wider UN System, where they are of legal interest.
Further information about the UN System can be found on the UN website.
The Charter of the United Nations is the UN's founding document, signed at San Francisco on 26 June 1945. It has since been amended several times (UN Charter, UN website). The Statute of the International Court of Justice is annexed to the Charter and is deemed to be an integral part of it. So far the Statute has not been amended (Basic Documents, ICJ website).
The official original versions of the Charter and Statute were published in Documents of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco, 1945, volume 15 (United Nations Information Organizations, 1945-55), which is held at IALS Library. It is also in the UN Law Collection on HeinOnline (see IALS Law Databases page). There is a free online version in the UN Digital Library.
The 1945 text of the Charter and Statute also appeared in volume 1 of the Yearbook of the United Nations, which is available on the UN website.
The current version of the Charter, incorporating the amendments, is on the UN website. The amended text also appears in Charter of the United Nations, statute and rules of court and other documents (International Court of Justice, 2007) and Blackstone's International Law Documents (14th edn, Oxford University Press 2019), both of which are held at IALS.
Commentaries on the Charter and Statute
Several commentaries are held by IALS Library, including:
Bardo Fassbender, The United Nations Charter as the Constitution of the International Community (Brill, 2009);
A Zimmerman, C Tomuschat and K Oellers-Frahm (eds), The Statute of the International Court of Justice: a Commentary (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2019);
Bruno Simma (ed), The Charter of the United Nations: a Commentary, 3rd ed. (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2012).
See Library Catalogue for other titles.
Under article 102 of the UN Charter, all treaties in which UN member states participate have to be registered with the Secretary-General, who must then publish them. The purpose of this requirement is the avoidance of secret diplomacy.
The Secretary-General also has a separate treaty function: acting as depositary for more than 560 multilateral treaties. These are either treaties of worldwide interest, or treaties drawn up under the aegis of UN regional commissions and open to their entire membership. Detailed information about the depositary function can be found in Summary of Practice of the Secretary-General as Depositary of Multilateral Treaties (United Nations,1994), available at IALS Library; 1999 reissue on UN Treaty Collection website.
The United Nations Treaty Series and League of Nations Treaty Series
Treaties registered with the Secretary-General under article 102 are published in the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS), in the original language, with translations into English and French where necessary. However, certain types of treaty may not be published in full: see 'Regulations to give effect to article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations' (A/RES/97(I), as amended).
Treaties registered with the League of Nations were published in the League of Nations Treaty Series (LNTS).
The UNTS and LNTS are available on the UN Treaty Collection website; they are also included in HeinOnline's UN Law Collection. IALS Library holds the entire printed League of Nations Treaty Series (1920-1946), and the UN Treaty Series from volume 1 (1946) to volume 2174 (2002); both series are in the IALS Offsite Store.
There is a substantial time-lag before a new treaty appears in the UNTS: it may appear first in the national treaty series of one of the parties, or in another publication (see IALS Public International Law research guide for more information).
The United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC)
The UN Treaty Collection is a vast library of UN and League of Nations treaties and related information. It includes the following sources:-
UN Treaty Series: searchable database of treaties, with status information for each treaty.
League of Nations Treaty Series: searchable database of treaties, with status information for each treaty.
Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General (MTDSG): this database appears on the UNTC homepage under 'Status of Treaties Deposited...'. It gives detailed information about the 560+ treaties for which the UN Secretary-General is the depositary. MTDSG used to be an annual print publication; the annual volumes are held at IALS 1967-2006 and digitised versions of them are on HeinOnline.
Monthly Statements: online versions of Statement of Treaties and International Agreements Registered or Filed and Recorded with the Secretariat, 1946 to January 2019 (ceased publication February 2019). Lists treaties recently registered by member states, giving title, date of conclusion, date and method of entry into force; annexes cover ratifications, accessions and other treaty actions. The print edition has annual cumulative indexes in each December issue up to and including December 1997; it is held at IALS from 1978-July 2009 and is also on HeinOnline (1983 to January 2019).
The LNTS has a cumulative index. The UNTS has an index for every fifty volumes; these are not cumulative, so it is easier to look UN treaties up in the UN Treaty Collection database, or HeinOnline's UN Law Collection.
Other indexes covering UN and League of Nations treaties include:
This section covers the International Court of Justice, the UN's principal judicial body, the Permanent Court of International Justice and the UN international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia; for information about other international courts and tribunals, see Dag Hammarskjöld Library's International Law research guide and IALS Library's Public International Law research guide.
International Court of Justice (ICJ)
The International Court of Justice publishes its decisions in Reports of judgments, advisory opinions and orders and related case documentation appears in Pleadings, oral arguments, documents. Both series are held at IALS Library.
All ICJ decisions are on the ICJ website, together with press releases detailing the filing of new cases and other developments. All ICJ cases are also on Lexis®Library ('Sources' tab - 'International Content' -'International Law') and Westlaw International Materials ('Administrative Materials' - 'Multi-National').
The Statute of the International Court of Justice, its rules, practice directions and related materials are published in the irregular series Acts and documents concerning the organization of the Court (held at IALS). They are also available via the Basic Documents page of the ICJ website. Information about the composition, organisation, jurisdiction and rules of the Court can be found in its Yearbook (Sijthoff, 1947 - ). IALS holds the printed volumes of the Yearbook and it is also on HeinOnline.
Digests of ICJ cases can be found at IALS in the following compilations:
IALS has the ICJ's annual report, Report of the International Court of Justice, from 1968/1969 to 1986/1987; it is on the ICJ website from 1985/86 onwards.
Indexes and bibliographies covering the work of the ICJ include:
Bimal N Patel, The World Court Reference Guide: judgments, advisory opinions and orders of the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Court of Justice (Kluwer Law International, 2002 - ). Detailed compilation of procedural and legal information about all ICJ decisions in the period covered, with indexes by article number of the ICJ Statute and UN Charter, basic subject indexes and indexes of treaties and arbitral awards cited. The first volume covers 1922-2000 and is held at IALS; a second volume (2001-2010) came out in 2014 , but IALS does not have it.
Bibliography of the International Court of Justice (The Court, 1947- ). IALS has issues 1 to 49, covering 1946 to 1995.
Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ)
The Permanent Court of International Justice was the forerunner of the ICJ; it was active from 1922 to 1946. It published its documentation in the series Publications of the Permanent Court of International Justice (held at IALS), as follows:-
IALS also has Series D, Acts and documents concerning the organisation of the court; Series E, annual report...; and Series F, General index of the publications of the Court.
Digests of PCIJ case law can be found in the following titles, all held at IALS:
Other sources covering the PCIJ include:
Bibliographical list of official and unofficial publications concerning the Permanent Court of International Justice (The Court, 1926-1946); held at IALS.
Bimal N Patel, The World Court reference guide: judgments, advisory opinions and orders of the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Court of Justice (1922-2000) (Kluwer Law International, 2002). Detailed compilation of procedural and legal information about all PCIJ decisions, with indexes by article number of the League of Nations Covenant and the PCIJ Statute, basic subject indexes and indexes of treaties and arbitral awards cited; held at IALS.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was active from 1993 until 2017. All ICTY decisions are available on its website, together with constitutional documents, practice directions, rules and other material. Decisions up to 2000 were published in the print series, Judicial Reports (Kluwer/Brill, c.1999-2005), which is held at IALS.
Selected ICTY decisions appear in the following sources, all available from IALS Library:
Oxford Reports on International Law: International Criminal Law, an OUP database available via the IALS Law Databases page.
Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: topical digests of the case law of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (Human Rights Watch, 2004).
The short-lived ICTY Yearbook published reports on its activities from 1995 to 1999, together with indictments, speeches, lists of documents and so on. IALS Library has the Yearbook from 1995 to 1998; it ceased publication after the 1999 volume.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was active from 1994 until 2015. All its decisions are on the tribunal's legacy website, together with constitutional documents, practice directions, rules and other material.
Selected decisions of the Rwanda tribunal can be found in the following publications, all available at IALS:
Annotated Leading Cases of International Criminal Tribunals (Intersentia, 1999 - )
Oxford Reports on International Law: International Criminal Law: an OUP online resource available via the IALS Law Databases page.
Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: topical digests...(Human Rights Watch, 2004).
The International Law Centre at the Université Libre de Bruxelles compiled the Rwanda Tribunal's decisions up to 2006 under the title International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda: Reports of Orders, Decisions and Judgments. Several volumes of this series were published by Bruylant (not held at IALS), then it became an online publication, on the International Law Centre's website.
IALS Library also has the CD-ROM collection, Basic Documents and Case Law (1995-2006), consisting of the tribunal's decisions, constitutional documents, rules, and other material, compiled by the Rwanda Tribunal's Legal Library.
The UN has produced the series Reports of International Arbitral Awards (RIAA) since 1948. It is a collection of decisions made in international arbitration cases, excluding commercial arbitration. The reports are in either English or French, with summaries in both languages. Awards made prior to the foundation of the UN are included in the series.
A UN 'document' is defined as a text submitted to a principal or subsidiary organ of the UN for consideration by it, as against a UN 'publication', which is material intended for the public. The many different types of document include resolutions and meeting records. For general information about UN documents, see the research guide produced by the UN's Dag Hammarskjöld Library.
The UN identifies its documents by a system of references called 'document symbols', consisting of letters and numbers: for example, 'A/66/L.38' or 'S/2013/140'. The construction of UN document symbols is explained in Dag Hammarskjöld Library's research guide.
UN documents online
UN documents are all available online from 1993 onwards, and many older documents have been digitised and made available online too. Further details are given below (see also this UN FAQ).
To find UN documents online, search one of these databases:-
The ODS and the Digital Library have very similar coverage of official documents, but different search facilities.
All General Assembly (GA) resolutions, back to 1946, are on the GA website, in the ODS, and in the UN Digital Library. In printed form, they appear in the annual title, Resolutions and decisions adopted by the General Assembly (formerly Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly) (United Nations, 1947 - ); this title is held at IALS and is also found on HeinOnline. In addition, IALS Library has Djonovich's compilation, United Nations resolutions: Series 1, Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly (1946-1985/86), published by Oceana.
All Security Council (SC) resolutions, back to 1946, are on the Security Council website and also in the ODS and the UN Digital Library. They are published annually by the UN in the print title Resolutions and decisions of the Security Council; this is not held at IALS, nor is it on HeinOnline, but is available at UN depository libraries. IALS Library has older SC resolutions in the Oceana title, United Nations resolutions. Series 2, Resolutions and decisions of the Security Council, compiled by Dusan J. Djonovich.
All ECOSOC resolutions are also found in the ODS and the UN Digital Library. Economic and Social Council resolutions are on the ECOSOC website as well: individually from 2001 onwards and in annual compilations from 1946 to 2000.
The Yearbook of the United Nations reproduces significant resolutions of the Security Council, General Assembly and Economic and Social Council. The Yearbook is on the UN website, but is not held at IALS Library.
UN principal organs and various other UN bodies produce either verbatim or summary records of their meetings. Verbatim meeting records have 'PV' in the document symbol and summary records have 'SR'. Official records are not published for all UN meetings, however: if no official meeting record exists, information may be available in a press release or annual report, or in the daily Journal of the United Nations, which is on the UN website from 2003 onwards (not held at IALS).
IALS Library does not hold UN meeting records, but they are available online and/or in UN depository libraries:-
Security Council: verbatim meeting records of Security Council meetings are available in the Official Document System and UN Digital Library, and on the Security Council website, 1946 onwards. They are part of the Security Council Official Records (SCOR), which are held in print format by UN depository libraries (not at IALS).
General Assembly: verbatim meeting records for the GA are all in the Official Document System and Digital Library,1946 onwards; however verbatim records of GA plenary meetings have been consistently produced only from the 5th session (1950/51) onwards. Meeting records are part of the General Assembly's Official Records (GAOR), which are held in print format by UN depository libraries (not at IALS).
General Assembly Sixth Committee (Legal): the committee produces summary records, which are available in the Official Document System and Digital Library from 1946 onwards; HeinOnline's UN Law Collection has them from 1946 to 2005, under Official Records of the General Assembly, Summary Records of the Sixth Committee; IALS Library has Sixth Committee meeting records from 1951/52 to 1975 only, under the title Summary Record of Meetings.
For more information about UN meeting records, see Dag Hammarskjöld Library's UN Documentation research guides for the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice and Secretariat.
General Assembly and Security Council votes are officially recorded in their meeting records, which are available on the UN Official Document System and in the UN Digital Library; more information about meeting records is given above.
Voting records also appear in the sessional titles, Resolutions and decisions adopted by the General Assembly (held at IALS, also on HeinOnline) and Resolutions and decisions of the Security Council (not held at IALS, not on HeinOnline - see depository libraries).
The UN library provides detailed information about voting records in its UN documentation research guide.
Reports, memoranda, letters, other documents
These and other types of UN official document are available in the Official Document System (ODS), the UN Digital Library (UNDL) and/or HeinOnline's UN Law Collection. If the UN documents that you are looking for are not available online and not held at IALS Library, use a UN depository library.
Index to Proceedings (1946 - ): annual indexes to proceedings of the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and Trusteeship Council; includes subject indexes and indexes to speeches.
United Nations document series symbols, 1946-1996 (United Nations, 1998): index to UN documents by document symbol, subject, corporate author and series title. (Print version held at IALS.)
IALS Library has a large collection of books on the work of the UN and its agencies, and numerous commentaries on UN conventions.
Introductory titles include the following:
Sven Gareis, The United Nations: an introduction (Palgrave Macmillan 2005)
Benedetto Conforti and Carlo Focarelli, The Law and Practice of the United Nations (5th rev edn, Brill 2016)
Simon Chesterman et al, Law and Practice of the United Nations : Documents and Commentary (2nd edn, Oxford University Press 2016).
For full details of UN-focused books available at IALS, in print and electronic format, see the Library Catalogue.
Among the very numerous international law journals and yearbooks available at IALS, the following are of particular relevance for UN research:
Annual Review of United Nations Affairs (Oceana/Oxford University Press 1949 - ): reproduces selected UN documents, with analytical introductions.
International Organizations Law Review (Brill 2004 - ): publishes articles on the law relating to international organizations generally, as well as on the UN and other specific international bodies; available on HeinOnline, with a three-year embargo (see IALS Law Databases page).
Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law (Brill 1997 - ): publishes articles on the UN's work in the field of international law; all but the most recent volumes are also available free on the internet.
Review of International Organizations (Springer 2006 - ): a journal focusing on politics and international relations, available online via IALS Library Catalogue.
United Nations Disarmament Yearbook (United Nations 1976 - ): reports on the UN's disarmament activities for each year; hard copy not held at IALS, but available on the UN website; also in HeinOnline's UN Law Collection (via IALS Law Databases page).
United Nations Juridical Yearbook (United Nations 1962 -): publishes legal opinions issued by UN secretariats, decisions of UN administrative tribunals and other UN legal documents; also reviews the year's legal developments. Held at IALS; also on HeinOnline and the UN website.
UNCITRALYearbook: publishes legal instruments, studies, reports and the records of selected UNCITRAL( (United Nations Commission on International Trade Law) meetings. Held at IALS from volume 1 (1968-70) to volume 34 (2003); available on the UNCITRAL website; also in HeinOnline's UN Law Collection (via IALS Law Databases page).
International Court of Justice Yearbook: publishes Information about the composition, organisation, jurisdiction and rules of the Court, together with summaries of the Court's judgments, advisory opinions and orders. IALS holds the printed volumes from 1947 onwards and the series is also on HeinOnline; recent volumes are on the ICJ website.
Yearbook of the United Nations: gives detailed annual descriptions of UN activities, with document citations, 1945 to date; publishes significant resolutions of the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council. Not held at IALS, but the whole series is on the UN website.
Yearbook on Human Rights: annual record of UN activities in the field of human rights; available in UN Digital Library; also in HeinOnline's UN Law Collection (via IALS Law Databases page); held at IALS 1946-1988 (ceased publication after 1988 volume); .
See the Library Catalogue for other titles.
For general guidance on searching for journal articles online, see the international law section of our Databases Guide.
IALS holds several bibliographies relating to the United Nations:-
Peter I Hajnal, Directory of United Nations documentary and archival sources (United Nations, York 1992)
Guide to the archives of international organizations. 1: The United Nations system (Unesco, 1984)
Peter I Hajnal, Guide to United Nations organization, documentation & publishing for students, researchers, librarians (Oceana, 1978)
General Assembly: resolutions, meeting records and other GA documents; meeting schedules, press releases, committee documentation and other information.
International Court of Justice: all ICJ and PCIJ decisions, Statute of the Court, court rules, press releases and other documents.
Official Document System (ODS): UN database containing all documents from 1993 onwards; all resolutions of the principal organs (General Assembly, Security Council, etc.) 1946 onwards; all Security Council plenary documents 1946 onwards; all supplements to the General Assembly Official Records (GAOR) 1946 onwards; all General Assembly plenary meeting records 1946 onwards; Economic and Social Council Official Records (ESCOR) from 1946 onwards, including meeting records from plenary sessions, supplements and annexes; Trusteeship Council Official Records (TCOR) from 1946, including meeting records from plenary sessions, supplements and annexes.The ODS only contains official UN documents issued with a document symbol; it does not include publications (material intended for the public), press releases, treaties or other material.
Security Council: resolutions, meeting records, reports, statements and other information.
UN home page: information about the UN's activities and policies, news, documents, meeting information and more.
UN international law pages: these cover the International Court of Justice, international tribunals connected to the UN, the International Law Commission, the General Assembly's Sixth Committee, UNCITRAL, the Internal Justice System, the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, and more.
UN Treaty Collection: databases of treaties and related information.
United Nations Digital Library: database of UN documents and publications, including voting records, speeches, maps, press releases, resolutions, meeting records and much more; can be searched by resource type, e.g. resolution, press release, legal opinion. Unlike the Official Document System, the Digital Library includes publications as well as official documents. For information about the Digital Library's coverage, see this guide.
Relevant research guides available on the internet include the following:
Researching the United Nations: Finding the Organization's Internal Resource Trails by Linda Tashbook of the University of Pittsburgh's Barco Law Library (on New York University's Globalex website).
United Nations Documentation - research guide by Leah Granger of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law (on New York University's Globalex website).