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 192 member states.
The Library of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) has a good collection of scholarly commentary on the work of the UN. It holds documentation produced by the UN only where it is of legal interest; larger collections of UN documentation can be found at UN depositories and on the UN website.
This research guide is structured by type of information source - treaties, cases, books and so on - rather than by subject. For an introduction to researching the work of the UN in the areas of human rights, the environment, international law and peace and security, see the Special Topics section of the research guide produced by the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library.
The UN has six principal organs, as laid down in Article 7 of its founding Charter:
As well as the six central institutions of the UN, there are a large number of related bodies: specialised agencies, programmes, offices and funds. Together, the central institutions and other bodies constitute what is known as the United Nations System.
The specialised agencies are independent 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.
The scope of this research guide is largely restricted to the core UN bodies. However, IALS does hold some materials relating to institutions of the wider UN System, where they are of legal interest - see Library catalogue.
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 (see Introductory Note to Charter on UN website).
The Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is annexed to the Charter and is deemed to be an integral part of it; so far the Statute has not been amended (see 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, New York 1945-55). They are reproduced in volume 1 of the Yearbook of the United Nations.
For amended versions of the Charter in print format, see Charter of the United Nations, statute and rules of court and other documents (International Court of Justice, The Hague 1989); or Blackstone's International Law Documents (9th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009).
All the above titles are available at IALS, except the Yearbook of the United Nations, which is available on the internet.
The Statute of the International Court of Justice is on the ICJ website.
The Charter and Statute are also on the subscription database HeinOnline, as follows:
HeinOnline is available to IALS Library's readers via the Electronic Law Library:
Several commentaries are held by the Library, including:
See catalogue for other titles.
Under article 102 of the UN Charter, all treaties in which UN member states participate, both bilateral and multilateral, have to be registered with the Secretary-General, who must then publish them. The purpose of this requirement is to avoid secret diplomacy.
The Secretary-General also has a separate treaty function, as depositary for more than 500 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, New York 1994), available at IALS Library; 1999 reissue on UN Treaty Collection website).
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 if necessary. However, the Regulations on the application of article 102 provide that the Secretariat may decide not to publish certain types of treaty in full (A/RES/97(I), as amended by A/RES/364(IV), A/RES/482(V) and A/RES/33/141).
Treaties registered with the League of Nations were published in the League of Nations Treaty Series (LNTS).
IALS has the United Nations Treaty Series from volume 1 (1946) to volume 2174 (2002), after which our print subscription was cancelled. It is held in offsite storage, from where it can be retrieved within 72 hours. The whole series is available on the UN Treaty Collection website and in HeinOnline's UN Law Collection (see IALS Electronic Law Library).
The entire League of Nations Treaty Series (1920-1946) is held in offsite storage, from where it can be retrieved within 72 hours. It is also on the UN Treaty Collection website and HeinOnline.
There is a substantial time-lag before a new treaty appears in the UNTS, so other sources often have to be used. Multilaterals for which the UN is the depositary should be available in the UN Treaty Collection under Texts of Recently Deposited Multilateral Treaties. For further information about tracing treaties, see Research tools, below, or refer to the IALS Library research guide, Public International Law.
The UN Treaty Collection website provides a free database of treaty texts, with status information. The Collection comprises the following titles:
The UN produces a number of treaty indexes and other reference sources, in print and online. There are also several non-UN treaty indexes. Most of these sources give status information (date in force and so on) as well as citations to printed sources.
This section deals with materials produced by the Permanent Court of International Justice, the International Court of Justice and the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia. It does not cover the International Criminal Court (ICC), nor the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), both of which are independent bodies; nor does it cover the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a joint undertaking by the UN and the government of Sierra Leone. For an introduction to the ICC or ITLOS, refer to the Dag Hammarskjöld Library's research guide; to find out about the Special Court for Sierra Leone, see its website.
The International Court of Justice publishes its decisions in Reports of judgments, advisory opinions and orders; related documentation appears in Pleadings, oral arguments, documents. Both series are held at IALS. All ICJ decisions are also on the ICJ website, together with press releases detailing the filing of new cases and other developments; they are on Lexis Library (International Court of Justice Decisions Combined, 1947 -) and Westlaw (database code INT-ICJ; 1947 -) as well.
The ICJ's Statute, rules, practice directions and related materials are published in the irregular series Acts and documents concerning the organization of the Court (in IALS). They are also available on 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 - ; in IALS in print and also via HeinOnline.).
Digests of ICJ cases can be found at IALS in the following compilations:
The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) was the forerunner of the ICJ, active from 1922 to 1946. It published its documentation in the series Publications of the Permanent Court of International Justice (all held at IALS), as follows:
The Library 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:
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) publishes its decisions in the series Judicial reports, (Kluwer Law International, c1999- ), which is held at IALS. There is a time-lag of several years before new cases appear in this series (the website has newer decisions - see below).
IALS has many of the Rwanda Tribunal's decisions, together with constitutional documents,rules, and a large number of other documents, on two CD-ROMs, Basic documents and case law (1995-2006), compiled by the Tribunal's Legal Library.
Selected decisions from both tribunals can be found in two titles held at IALS:
The ICTY's shortlived Yearbook published reports on the work of the Tribunal, biographies of its officials, indictments, speeches, lists of documents produced by the Tribunal and other information. IALS has it from 1995 to 1998; it ceased publication with the 1999 volume.
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, The Hague 2002). This is a detailed one-volume compilation of procedural and legal information about all ICJ and PCIJ decisions in the period covered. It has indexes by article number of the League of Nations Covenant, the PCIJ and ICJ Statutes and rules and the UN Charter. It also has basic subject indexes and indexes of treaties and arbitral awards cited. (Held at IALS.)
The ICJ website has lists of contentious cases, advisory proceedings and pending cases, as well as a complete list of past cases (contentious and advisory).
The full-text databases of ICJ cases on Lexis Library (International Court of Justice Decisions Combined, 1947 -) and Westlaw (database code INT-ICJ; 1947 -) can be used for a variety of research purposes: cases on a given topic, cases mentioning a particular treaty and so on. Both are available at IALS via the Electronic Law Library.
Bibliographies and indexes available at IALS include:
Since 1948, the UN has produced Reports of international arbitral awards (cited as RIAA), a collection of decisions made in international arbitration cases. Originally it was confined to arbitration between states, but later the policy was extended to include arbitration between international organisations and states; commercial arbitration is excluded, however. 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. Forthcoming volumes will extend retrospective coverage back to the late eighteenth century.
The voting records of the General Assembly and the Security Council are available on the internet from 1946 onwards, via UNBISnet, a free resource produced by the UN's Dag Hammarskjöld Library.
The voting records of the General Assembly are cumulated in the UN title Resolutions and decisions adopted by the General Assembly (formerly Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly), from the 1st session onwards. (In IALS.)
Voting records of the General Assembly (1946 to 1985/86) and of the Security Council (1946 to 1978/79) are available in Djonovich, United Nations resolutions. Series 1, Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and Series 2, Resolutions and decisions of the Security Council (Oceana, Dobbs Ferry, NY and 1972-88 and 1988-92). In IALS.
Further information about voting records can be found in Dag Hammarskjöld Library's research guide.
IALS holds UN official documents of legal interest. Each UN document is identified by a "document symbol" consisting of letters and numbers, for example A/S-19/29. The Dag Hammarskjöld Library's research guide has an explanation of these symbols.
Until 1985, the official records of each principal UN body were bound together as a set, for example Official Records of the General Assembly, 1946-1984 (cited as GAOR) and Official Records of the Security Council, 1946-1984 (cited as SCOR). IALS does not have these sets, but it does have some of their constituent parts. For UN materials which are not held at IALS, use the internet (see below), or refer to a UN depository library.
The following are key UN documents and publications which are held at IALS:
International Court of Justice, Reports of judgments, advisory opinions and orders, 1947/48 - . Also on HeinOnline.
The Journal of the United Nations is not available at IALS, but it is on the internet from 1993 onwards, via the UN Official Document System (select Useful Search Links). It includes the latest treaty signatures and ratifications, notices of forthcoming meetings of the General Assembly, Security Council and other bodies and summaries of recent meetings.
The Yearbook of the United Nations is not available at IALS either, but the whole series (1946 - ) is on the internet. It gives a detailed description of UN activities and includes significant resolutions of the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council.
Titles classed by the UN as "publications" are not generally available on the internet, but their bibliographic details can be looked up on the UN Publications website, or on UNBISnet. A substantial number of titles classed as "documents", on the other hand, are available on the internet in full. See above for links to specific key titles (yearbooks, etc.); for other documents, see below:
UN Official Document System (ODS): a full-text database of UN documents from 1993 onwards (1946 onwards for resolutions); see above for further details.
UNBISnet: an online index to UN documents and publications going back to 1979 (earlier for some important document types). It includes voting records. There are links to a large number of full-text documents. Produced by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and the Library of the UN's Geneva Office.
UN-I-QUE: a database of answers to frequently-asked questions about UN documentation, with links to full-text sources where available. Produced by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library.
Dag Hammarskjöld Library, United Nations document series symbols, 1946-1996 (United Nations, New York 1998): a printed index to UN documents by document symbol, subject, corporate author and series title. In IALS.
IALS has a good collection of treatises on the work of the UN and its agencies, as well as numerous commentaries on UN conventions. The Library also holds a very large number of treatises on international law generally, which are beyond the scope of this guide.
Many other relevant titles may be found on the Library Catalogue.
Among the very numerous international law periodicals held at IALS, the following are of particular relevance for UN research:
See the Library Catalogue for other periodical titles, including e-journals.
For guidance on tracing articles about a particular subject, see IALS Library's web guide, Finding Journal Articles.
IALS has several printed bibliographies relating to the United Nations:
General Assembly: includes information and documents from 53rd session (1998/99) onwards
International Court of Justice: provides all ICJ and PCIJ decisions, together with related documents
Official Document System (ODS) of the United Nations: vast full-text database of UN documentation
Security Council: provides resolutions, reports, details of meetings and other information
UN home page: has links to the main policy areas, news, documents and other key information
UN International law pages: these cover the work of the International Law Commission, UNCITRAL, the ICJ and other legal institutions
UN Treaty Collection: databases of treaties and related information
Relevant research guides available on the internet include the following: