UPDATE: International Human Rights Research Guide


By Grace M. Mills


Grace M. Mills , J.D., M.L.S. is a retired law librarian.  She previously had positions within public services affiliated with the law schools of City University of New York, North Carolina Central University, and University of California at Berkeley.  She was the law library director at Florida A&M University and Hamline University where she retired in 2012


Published October 2014

(Previously updated on March 2008 and June 2012)

See the Archive Version


Table of Contents


1.      Introduction

2.      European Union Documentation

3.      United Nations Documentation

3.1. Charter Bodies

3.2.   Treaty Bodies

4.      Abbreviations

5.      Basic Documents in International Human Rights

5.1.      Guide to United Nations Symbols

5.2.      United Nations Web Sites

5.3.      United Nations Depository Library

6.      United Nations Human Rights Documents Listed by Subject Matter

7.      International Organizations

8.      International News Organizations

9.      Educational Institutions Web Information

10.   International Law Journals


1.      Introduction

The bodies of the United Nations primarily govern international human rights documents and decisions.  The United Nations was established on October 24, 1945, by the governments of 51 countries, including the victors of WWII -- the United States, England, France, and Russia.  The United Nations is a body committed to securing the world’s peace through international cooperation.  As of this writing there are currently 193 member nations as members of this body.  Human rights issues affect all countries, whether they are active participants in the United Nations or not. 


Although this document primarily discusses the documentation created by the United Nations, mention should be made of the European Union.  This regional organization was founded after World War II by six nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) in the hopes of eliminating war between neighboring countries. By 1951, the six nations had signed a treaty establishing common management for two of their mutual industries:  coal and steel.  From this initial economic parity between six countries on two mutual industries, the European Union has grown to 28 nations (and as of this writing, six more nations have applied for membership and two more countries are in line for potential membership). 


2.      European Union Documentation

The European Union (EU) is a complex and unique organization.  Although it is a regional organization of membership nations, the EU does not have any jurisdiction within the member state.  The European Union does not interfere with the internal sovereignty of a member nation.  The Union can only create policy that regulates issues of mutual concern between member nations. The disparate cultures and economies of the respective countries have led to the creation of important documents for the region.  The ease of the border restrictions and controls concerning the passage of goods, resources and people has convinced separate nations that there is a greater need for uniform documents controlling these multinational concerns.    The Union, as the regional body, has created several relevant documents on child labor, human trafficking and immigration that directly impact upon international human rights. 


Three bodies determine the decision-making policies of the European Union policies: the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.  The European Commission proposes new laws and it is the Parliament and Council that passes the new law.  Each new law fits into one of the existing European Union treaty documents.


The eight main treaties are:


The web portal to the European Union is available here . The web portal to the European Commission is available here .


3.      United Nations Documentation

An understanding of the United Nations documentation begins with the abbreviations employed for discussing and classifying United Nations documents. United Nations abbreviations are used for documentation of materials found in either bodies chartered by the UN (the Human Rights Council or Commission on Human Rights) or those bodies created by United Nations treaties. Human rights documents and organizations frequently are discussed using abbreviations found below.   


3.1.   Charter Bodies

The charter bodies created under the United Nation charter are:



3.2.   Treaty Bodies

There are seven UN treaty bodies governing international human rights: 



There are several bodies within the United Nations whose primary goal is not to promote or protect human rights; however, these entities frequently endorse activities that protect human rights.  The scope of this Guide is not to examine these entities at length but they must be mentioned as these entities often effectuate and promote the aims of international human rights:  the UN General Assembly (GA), the Third Committee of the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (HABITAT) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).


The United Nations Commission on Human Rights was founded in 1946.  It was dissolved by the United Nations in 2006 and replaced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights This Commission meets in Geneva, Switzerland in a regular session lasting six weeks in March/April of each year.  At an annual regular session the Commission adopts resolutions and make decisions that affect the entire globe when monitoring human rights situations whether in specific countries or in territories. A member state can call the UN to protect the human rights of its people within its own state or a member state can call the UN to adopt a resolution, make a determination of a violation of human rights against another state and/or request that the UN provide protection of human rights for people of a certain state, region or territory.  As of this 2014 writing the Commission has 13 regional offices and 13 country offices.


The Commission can also meet in special sessions upon the agreement of member States.  A special session deals with any urgent human rights matters brought before the Commission by a member State.   


The Human Rights Committee (HRC), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Committee Against Torture (CAT) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) can receive petitions from individuals who claim that their human rights have been violated. 


4.      Abbreviations

·     CAT – Committee Against Torture

·     CEDAW – Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

·     CERD – Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

·     CESCR – Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

·     CHR – Commission on Human Rights

·     CMW – Committee on Migrant Workers

·     CRC – Committee on the Rights of the Child

·     CSW – Commission on the Status of Women

·     DAW – Division for the Advancement of Women

·     DESA – Department on Economic and Social Affairs

·     ESC – Economic and Social Council of the United Nations

·     FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

·     HABITAT – United Nations Human Settlements Programme

·     HRC – Human Rights Committee

·     IASC – Inter-Agency Standing Committee

·     ICJ – International Court of Justice

·     OCHA – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

·     OHCHR – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

·     OSAGI – Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women

·     UNAIDS – Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

·     UNDP – United Nations Development Programme

·     UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

·     UNGA – General Assembly of the United Nations

·     UNHCR – United Nationals High Commissioner for Refugees

·     UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fun

·     UNIFEM – United Nations Development Fund for Women

·     UNIFPA – United Nations Population Fund

·     UNMA – United Nations Mine Action

·     UNTS – United Nations Treaty Series

·     WHO – World Health Organization


5.      Basic Documents in International Human Rights


5.1.   Guide to United Nations Symbols

The United Nations uses a classification system unique to this international body.  Once the reader understands the system it is very easy to find a category of documents, related and any subsequent documents related to human rights.


There are two useful United Nations web sites concerning UN document symbols.  A guide is published by the United Nations for deciphering the symbols of official United Nations documents, and is available from the United Nations web site .  There is also a guide from the Office of the Commission on Human Rights .


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights lists the following United Nations documents as core to the development and understanding of international law:


·        Charter of the United Nations

·        The International Bill of Human Rights

·        Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

·        International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

·        International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966

·        Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

·        Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty


All of these documents can be found in paper or via electronic databases using the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS) as published by the United Nations.  The United Nations Treaty Series contains all treaties deposited with the Secretary General of the United Nations. There are currently over 40,000 treaties in this collection, each reproduced in either the authentic language or languages of the treaty, as well as in English and French.


5.2.   United Nations Web Sites



The United Nations also has several databases that provide electronic means for accessing human rights documents and materials.  These databases are available in three languages:  English, French and Spanish. 



5.3.   United Nations Depository Library

The United Nations has a Depository Library System whereby libraries throughout the world can participate in providing information on human rights and have the right to deposit UN documents.  The UN has a Depository Library locator



Publications (including background information, fact sheets, issue papers, promotional and reference materials) concerning international human rights are available from the OHCHR .


In addition to the United Nations documents listed above the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has designated several treaty documents as ‘core international human rights instruments’ that are critical in determining the implementations of human rights on its State members. The documents, with their abbreviations and dates of enactment and bodies that monitor the progress of these documents, are listed below as provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.


6.     United Nations Human Rights Documents Listed by Subject Matter

The OHCHR provides an updated grouping of the relevant human rights documents on its web site.


Freedom of Association:



Human Rights in the Administration of Justice: Protection of Persons Subjected to Detention or Imprisonment:









Nationality, Statelessness, Asylum and Refugees:



Prevention of Discrimination:  


Promotion and Protection of Human Rights:






Slavery, Slavery-Like Practices, and Forced Labour:



Social Welfare, Progress, and Development:



War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Including Genocide:



World Conference on Human Rights and Millennium Assembly:



7.      International Organizations

There are many organizations that promote international human rights but are not affiliated with, or organized by, the United Nations or the European Union.  These organizations often called NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are important to note as they often go into areas of conflict without the imprint of political organizations or country affiliation.  Below are four such organizations: 












8.     International News Organizations

The following all started as news reporting services with bureaus and reporters located in major cities throughout the world.  These agencies have expanded their coverage to provide electronic media.  This has sped the delivery of human disasters, such as typhoons and earthquakes that strike remote areas, human rights disasters, such as the refugee camps of Darfur and Thailand, and human rights violations throughout the world.   
















Informative, Yet Not a News Site:



9.     Educational Institutions Web Information

Several universities maintain web sites that contain important information on finding United Nations organizations and international human rights materials. 








10. International Law Journals

Many United States university law schools publish student-edited journals having an emphasis upon human rights.  The list below, as of August 2014, is representative but by no means comprehensive.




The following journals, as of August 2014, are both United States law school student edited and online journals only.