United Nations Documentation
By Leah Granger
( Update of an article by Wiltrud Harms published on September/October 2007)
Leah Granger is a reference librarian at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, where—after several years of apprenticeship to Wiltrud Harms— she is responsible for maintaining the United Nations law collection and teaching UN legal research. Leah is an editor of the Foreign Law Guide. She has degrees from New College of Florida (B.A.), Berkeley School of Law (J.D.), and San Jose State University (M.L.I.S.).
Published April/May 2015
Table of Contents
UN Documents are often of interest to researchers in the fields of international law, human rights, peace and security, and economic development.
This guide provides information on using the primary finding tools for UN documents. The guide is organized by finding tool. For each resource, there is a description of the scope of its contents and the best way to use the tool. For more information on the UN generally, see The United Nations: Boalt Research Guide .
Generally, use UNBISnet to look for a specific document or to research a topic. The UNBISnet user interface is the most comprehensive and detailed source of UN information. UNBISnet usually contains links to the documents stored in ODS.
If there is not a link in UNBISnet or you don't find a record at all, it is worth searching for the document directly in ODS. Older documents not contained in ODS may be found by searching the Access UN microfilm index.
Use ODS as a primary research tool when conducting full-text searches of resolutions and speeches.
If you are looking for treaty documents or publications from a specific UN body, consider using the HeinOnline UN Law Collection, the UN Treaty Collection, or a UN body website. For more information on treaty research, see United Nations Treaties: Boalt Research Guide .
UN-i-Que is an online reference file, containing unique listings of recurring studies and reports. It is a useful entry point for historical and in-depth research and in the maintenance of UN library collections.
Each of these finding tools is explained in detail in the following sections.
- Comprehensive online index/catalog for UN documents and publications from 1979 onward (with some older documents).
- Produced by the UN Dag Hammarskjold Library (DHL) in cooperation with the UN library in Geneva.
Most important and largest database of UNBISnet. Includes UN documents and publications indexed by DHL and Geneva Library AND commercial publications and other non-UN materials (such as books and journal articles) published worldwide on topics that are relevant to the UN and collected by the Library.
· Catalog records for UN publications issued from 1979–Present
- Retrospective catalog records of select documents
- Direct link from catalog record to ODS document
- Mastheads from 1992–Present, with ongoing retrospective additions
- All Resolutions of GA, SC, TC, ECOSOC from 1946–Present
- All resolutions of General Assembly and Security Council
- Link to full text of the Resolution
Index to Searches:
- General Assembly 1983–Present
- Security Council 1983–Present
- Economic and Social Council 1983–Present
- Trusteeship Council 1982–1994
- Link to Full Text:
- Most GA from 1986–Present
- SC from 1983–Present
- ECOSOC from 1994–Present
Catalog records for UN materials are typically very detailed and frequently give useful additional information (relating to treaties, for example).
Records created for non-UN sources held by the Dag Hammarskjold Library are generally not as detailed.
The bibliographic descriptions, particularly those of journal articles, can be very useful for researchers outside the Organization. UNBISnet alone offers these citations to books and articles coming from all regions of the world.
All three databases offer: "New Keyword Search" and "New Browse List Search".
"New Keyword Search":
Use “New Keyword Search” unless you want to browse a list of documents. You can search for text within specific fields (e.g. Subject or Title) and limit the results by Type of Material, Language, and Date.
“General Keyword”: searches ALL fields, especially useful for searching the content notes, which will contain information about any legal texts annexed to the document.
Subject terms assigned by UNBISnet may differ from those of the Library of Congress, (e.g. “transnational corporations” is used for “international business enterprises”).
- Note that UNBISnet created two subject terms for materials containing treaties and declarations:
- TREATIES (TEXT)
- DECLARATIONS (TEXT)
Exclude unwanted materials, by limiting search results to:
- Database (for separating UN from non-UN materials)
- Type of material (e.g. UN resolutions)
- Type of record (e.g. journal articles)
- Year or years of publication
“New Browse List Search”:
Convenient and efficient if the exact beginning of the document symbol, sales number, title, etc. is known.
The "New Browse List Search" requires the exact input of the beginning of a document symbol (e.g. A/65/51), sales number (e.g. 10.IV.11), or title (e.g. Conference on Disarmament). The result screen displays all documents with numbers (titles, subjects, etc.) following this document (e.g. A/65/52, 53, etc.).
A symbol entered into the symbol field can be truncated to just one letter if the first symbol element consists of a single letter.
EX: to search all General Assembly documents enter "A/".
The "UN Documents" and the "Daily journal - New York" databases allow full-text searching for words and phrases, and also the use of Boolean operators such as AND, OR, AND NOT, SENTENCE, and PARAGRAPH. A question mark replaces any letter in a word, and an asterisk any string of characters at the beginning or end of a word. Full-text searches are very effective when searching for documents dealing with specific topics or concepts that are not used as subject terms by the UN bibliographic system.
EX: significant harm SENTENCE aquifer state* PARAGRAPH (reparation OR compensation) - and selecting "Use Boolean operators" as search type.
Using UNBISnet as a portal to the ODS:
For all searches other than full-text, UNBISnet is the best tool for finding UN documents. Once the symbol has been found by UNBISnet, enter it on the ODS search screen to retrieve the item. The last step may be unnecessary since many UNBISnet citations offer direct links to ODS.
For those familiar with ODS, the link to the old ODS interface is still available. The old interface provides search options that are not available on the new interface.
ODS is the official UN document repository, containing UN documentation in the six official languages. It provides a full-text searchable multilingual system.
Most important and largest database of the ODS system.
· The Official Records of the United Nations
· Thousands of masthead documents (a.k.a. “working documents” or “mimeos”) mostly issued after 1992
· ALL documents from 1993–Present
· Most Gen. Assembly (A/…) 1988–Present
o The SC and GA consider many important issues jointly. In such cases, the same document will be given both an A/… and an S/… number. Because ALL the SC documents are in ODS, you will sometimes be able to access early GA documents that were also considered by the SC.
· ALL Sec. Council (S/…) 1946–Present
· ALL UNCITRAL (A/CN.9/…) 1967–Present
· Most ILC (A/CN.4/…) 1948–Present
· Most Legal Committee (A/C.6/…) 1986–Present
ALL Resolutions 1946–1993:
· Only accessible from the Advanced Search screen
· Retrieves resolutions in the final Official Records version only.
· Resolutions adopted after 1993, in provisional or final form, can only be found in the UN Documents database
· Includes resolutions of the GA, SC, Economic and Social Council, and Trusteeship Council
· New York
· Information about upcoming meetings
· A Summary of Official Meetings convened a day or so earlier
· UN document symbols of major documents that served (or will serve) as basis for the discussions
· Beginning with July 2004, links to the text of documents cited or listed (retrieve the full text by clicking on the document symbol)
Daily list of documents:
Which Search Function to Use:
1. Advanced Search:
- Select which database to search.
- Search by document symbol, title, date, subject, session, agenda item, or full text
2. Simple Search:
· Only searches UN Documents, not the Resolutions Database
· Full-text search in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish
· Using the Old ODS interface, you may use right truncation of document symbols, to retrieve series of documents.
3. Global Search:
· Uses a unique search engine capable of retrieving older documents stored as images.
4. Full Text Search:
- Full-text searching is available on both the simple and the advanced search pages. Full-text searches can be performed in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish using either a pre-set search type or search expressions with (Boolean) operators. However, in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish, full-text searching is possible only for documents published since 1 January 2001. Some documents stored only in image format cannot be retrieved by a full-text search.
- ODS offers three convenient preset search types that should meet most users' needs for full-text searching: "Find this phrase," "Find all the words," and "Find any of the words." In addition, Boolean operators may be used to perform more complex searches. The full-text search type can be selected from the corresponding drop-down menu.
3. UN Website
The UN website serves as a gateway to an immense store of information and documentation on the world body and its activities. Find:
- background information on the UN and its membership
- links to essential documentation
- information on upcoming, ongoing, and past conferences
- sessional information and documentation of the principal organs and their subsidiary bodies, with background information for each body (via its "Main Bodies" link)
From the main page, you may select the pages of the main bodies or pages organized by area of work. From each of the main body pages, you may find the agenda, meetings, and documents from that body.
Documents may also be quickly located by selecting the “ Documents ” link from the bottom of the page, listed under “Resources/Services.”
The work of the Sixth Committee and the International Law Commission (ILC) may be accessed via “What We Do” à ”Uphold International Law” à ”What is International Law.” The links are about halfway down the page.
The "Search" link of the UN Homepage allows for BASIC and ADVANCED full-text searching of all material posted on the UN website and a few related sites (e.g. ILC).
When to use the 'search' feature:
The UN website has links to the ODS, and most of its documents are contained in the ODS database (search from the “ Documents ” page). More importantly, there are materials on the UN website that are not available in the ODS and may not even be described by UNBISnet. For this reason, whenever we have citations for UN materials but ODS will not retrieve them, it is a good idea to search the UN website (or related websites such as OHCHR). For example, one may find:
- unedited advance versions of selected UN documents (to be issued as official UN documents in due time)
- selected reports on UN seminars and working papers issued mainly for the participants and 'in-house' use
- selected publications (even sales publications), particularly those dealing with human rights or trade and development issues
- UN publications which are (presently) only available in electronic version
This is the most important UN web page for international law research, and all of its sub links are worth exploring, particularly:
- The page of the Sixth Committee: the "legal arm" of the General Assembly, offers in its "Summaries of work" detailed descriptions of the Assembly’s current work on legally relevant agenda items;
- The page of the International Law Commission : has a large section entitled "Researching the work of the Commission."
- The Analytical Guide to the Work of the International Law Commission : the single most valuable research aid for understanding the drafting of International Laws.
The Office of Legal Affairs may be found under the link for “Departments/Offices” à ”New York” at the bottom of the UN homepage. OLA brings together a number of useful resources, including the “Repertory of Practice of the UN Organs” and an excellent “Legal Research Guide”.
The ”Global Search” that enables searching across the following UN legal publications:
- Yearbook of the International Law Commission
- UNCITRAL yearbook
- United Nations juridical yearbook
- UNCITRAL publications
- Reports of international arbitral awards
- Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs
- Summaries of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders of the International Court of Justice
- Repertoire of Practice of the Security Council
- Proceedings of Diplomatic Conferences
For example, search by Boolean “mount w/2 fitzroy” or by document number “A/CN.4/519” as an exact phrase.
Maintained by the Office of the High Commissioner, the OHCHR website is the most complete source of information and documentation on UN action for the protection and promotion of human rights.
- An international law link providing a comprehensive list of UN human rights treaties and declarations. Use the Status of Ratifications Interactive Dashboard for country data;
· An issues link that lists human rights topics considered by the UN, in alphabetical order; click a topic and obtain a selection of relevant, important UN documents
- A human rights bodies link with info and documents on all UN bodies working for human rights, and a sub link: “Search the Treaty Body Database”
Treaty Body Database:
Allows you to search for documents by region/country, committee, document type, symbol, and date.
Universal Human Rights Index:
Allows you to track the development of human rights issues (topics) worldwide across bodies and over the past ten years. Includes concluding documents from the ten UN human rights treaty bodies, Country visit reports, and recommendations made under the Universal Periodic Review process. Advanced search option allows for filtering by Right.
(Developed by Netherlands Institute of Human Rights–SIM), covers treaty bodies which receive and consider individual complaints including CCPR, CERD, CEDAW, CAT, CRPD, CED, CESCR, CRC, and general comments and general recommendations.
The Documents and Library pages provide:
- Links to the ODS, UNBISnet and UN-I-QUE
- Access to the UN Documentation Research Guide—an expert's guide to the UN documentation system (with search tips included), and special chapters on the environment, human rights, international law, and peacekeeping
- Resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council (going back to 1946), and of the Economic & Social Council (going back to 1992)
- Sessional listings of General Assembly meetings and documents beginning with the 57th session (2002/ 2003)—with links to the full texts
- Yearly listings (1994–Present) of Security Council meetings & documents with links to the full texts (docs. are grouped in categories)
- Access to UN Pulse, keeping researchers abreast of recently issued major UN publications and documents and offering links to their full text
This collection contains exact reproductions of major United Nations legal publications, including the complete collection of the:
- United Nations Treaty Series
- League of Nations Treaty Series
- Monthly Statement of Treaties & International Agreements
- UNCITRAL Publications
- UNIDIR Publications
- United Nations Legislative Series
- and much more
Finding Aids and additional features make it easy to pull up a UN Treaty by entering a UNTS Citation, searching for a UN Treaty, and linking to law review articles that cite a UN Treaty.
This is just a selection of material that may be of most interest to the legal researcher. Consult the website for a complete and up-to-date list.
- UN Yearbook of the International Law Commission (1949–2004)
- UN Commission on International Trade Law Yearbook (1968–2007)
- UN Disarmament Yearbook (1976–2010)
- Yearbook on Human Rights (1946–1988)
- UN Juridical Yearbook (1963–2009)
- United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS) & Indexes (1946–Present)
- Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General (2009)
- League of Nations Treaty Series
- Treaty Handbook
- Reports of International Arbitral Awards (1948–Present)
- Judgments of the UN Administrative Tribunal (1950–2009)
- UNCTAD Review
- UN Bulletin
- UN Chronicle
- UN Review
- UN Document Index (1950–1973)
- UN Legislative Series
- ICJ Yearbook
- ICJ Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders
- Summaries of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders of the ICJ
- ICJ, Selected Documents relating to the Drafting of the Statute
Codification and Progressive Development of International Law
- Analytical Guide to the Work of the International Law Commission, 1949–1997
- Summary Records of the Sixth Committee, Official Records of the General Assembly (1946–1983)
- United Nations Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court (Rome, 15 June-17 July 1998) Official Records
- Work of the International Law Commission, 7th ed.
- UNCITRAL Conventions
- UNCITRAL Model Rules
- UNCITRAL Practice Guides
- Digest of International Cases on the Law of the Sea
- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
- Law of the Sea Bulletin (1983–2010)
- After Non-Detection, What Iraq's Unfound WMD Mean for the Future of Non-Proliferation
- Alternative Approaches in Multilateral Decision Making: Disarmament as Humanitarian Action
- Bound to Cooperate: Conflict, Peace and People in Sierra Leone
- Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences
- Celebrating the Space Age: 50 Years of Space Technology, 40 Years of the Outer Space Treaty - Conference Report, 2-3 April 2007
- Common Security in Outer Space and International Law
- Costs of Disarmament: Cost Benefit Analysis of SALW Destruction versus Storage
- CTBT and Beyond
- Developing a Biological Incident Database
- Disarmament and Conflict Resolution Project - various reports
- Evolving Trends in the Dual Use of Satellites
- From Versailles to Baghdad: Post-War Armament Control of Defeated States
- Implementing Resolution 1540: The Role of Regional Organizations
- Implications of States' Views on an Arms Trade Treaty
- Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Assessing the Existing Proposals
- Space Security 2009: Moving towards a Safer Space Environment, Conference Report 15-16 June 2009
- Unfinished Business: The Negotiation of the CTBT and the End of Nuclear Testing
Quick Reference Guide:
HeinOnline's Quick Reference Guide provides clear, detailed instructions on using the databases.
In addition to browsing through the various collections, one can search for material using one of the following finding aids:
- Enter a United Nations Treaty Series Citation:
- Enter a League of Nations Treaty Series Citation
- Search for a Treaty:
- Search all United Nations Publications
- International Agreements by Popular Name
- Scholarly Writings of Faculty Members
Commercially produced online index covering UN documents and publications issued from 1946–Present.
Produced by the Readex Corporation as a finding aid for UN documents scanned onto READEX fiche.
The only online index that covers older UN documents not yet incorporated by UNBISnet.
Bibliographic Records from 1948–Present
- Sales Publications
- Official Records
- Miscellaneous Documents
- Indexing of individual articles
- Bilateral and Multilateral treaties contained in the UN Treaty Series
- Beginning with vol. 925, includes subsequent treaty action instruments (e.g. ratifications)
- Citations to UN sales publications although their images do not exist on Readex microfiche
Selected documents are appended to the respective bibliographic citations incl. SC resolutions (from 1974 on) and GA and ECOSOC resolutions from 1983.
To search AccessUN efficiently for citations to treaties published in the UNTS, treaty researchers should become familiar with the following special features:
- The "Document Number" field is used for the UN treaty registration number, followed by the parenthetical phrase "Treaty Series", for example, 27531 (Treaty Series)
- UNTS volume and page number appear in the (searchable) "Series Information" field—thus a UNTS citation can be used for finding the respective treaty citation in AccessUN (see the search example below)
- Parties to bilateral agreements are included in the title field (preceding the actual title) and also treated as subjects; they can be searched via title and subject fields
- Multilateral as well bilateral agreements have the word "Text" inserted at the end of the title
- Title fields usually include information about place & date of conclusion/adoption
AccessUN's "Help" link offers well-written and clearly organized search instructions, including numerous search examples. However, no examples are given for finding treaties published in the UN Treaty Series using AccessUN. The following example shows how to find treaties by citation in AccessUN.
From the main AccessUN search screen, enter <volume 1577 and p. 3> [p. + space + number] and search "in All Fields." It will bring up the wanted treaty citation, covering the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. AccessUN does not have the full text but does provide:
- Location of a treaty in the UNTS and/or
- The exact title of a treaty and/or
- Other treaty data such as its registration number, date of conclusion, etc.
Ready-reference database tracking mainly the production of UN material of a recurrent nature.
Designed to address frequently asked questions and provide quick access to document symbols/sales numbers for UN materials.
Produced by the UN Dag Hammarskjold Library (DHL).
Comprehensive coverage from 1946–Present (in reverse chronological order) of:
- Annual/Sessional reports of committees/commissions
- Annual publications
- Reports periodically/irregularly issued (often by special rapporteurs on topics of international law and human rights
- Reports of major conferences
- Statements in the General Debate
Items are usually listed within a few days of receipt by the Dag Hammarskjold Library.
These listings are valuable in research, in bindery preparation and in collection development.
More than 6,500 reference records were created for this database. Every record is identified by a (searchable) title or heading and a (non-searchable) record number consisting of the letter "R" followed by a 5-digit number:
For example, The Human Rights Council issues an annual report for which UN-I-Que has a reference record. The title of the reference record is "Human Rights Council. Report" and the record number is "R06502." Many UN annual report titles have changed names over time or are inconsistently published. UN-I-Que does a good job of documenting these small inconsistencies and name changes, making it very useful for historical and longitudinal research.
You can create a durable link to any UN-I-Que reference record by appending the record number to the URL.
UN-I-Que presents its search results by listing the found record titles in alphabetical order, with each title/heading serving as a link to the individual reference record.
Many records include related information, e.g. the record for the Report of the Human Rights Council provides a reference to the resolution which established the Council, gives the series symbol for its documents and includes the URL for its website.
A reference record may have just one entry or it may have many. These entries lead neither to full-text documents nor detailed bibliographic descriptions but offer important information about the listed items, e.g.:
- Document symbol and/or sales number
- Publication date
- Session specification (if applicable)
- Publication in one of the United Nations Official Records series (if applicable)
· From UN-I-Que's Homepage link to: " Search Tips .”
· Here we find tips and examples on how to search for UN documents, publications and (rarely) press releases, dealing with selected categories of UN materials or UN related information. UN-I-Que uses 23 terms to identify 23 types of frequently requested materials: e.g. if you need human rights rapporteurs' reports (hr) on freedom of religion, search for "religion hr".
· Every user should visit uN-I-Que’s link to “Search Tips” because there is more to UN-I-Que than is apparent from the brief description given on the search screen. The "Search Tips" reflect the broad scope of information contained in this reference file. For example, they mention conferences and summits as well as plans or programs of action adopted by UN bodies, and explain which type of documents are listed for these categories and how to search for them.
· In most cases, one should prefer ALL WORD searches to PHRASE searches because the record titles (called "headings") chosen by UN-I-Que may differ from the bibliographic title we know. Since UN titles and names change frequently, UN-I-Que may use simplified, slightly modified, or abbreviated titles for certain recurring publications or documents. On the other hand, searchable information may be added (in brackets) to the name of a body when the given name does not seem sufficiently descriptive for UN-I-Que's reference purposes.
· Example: a phrase search for “Report of the International Law Commission” will find no hits although it is presently the exact title of the ILC’s sessional report. Enter instead: “international law commission report” and select "Match ALL words." The first of four retrieved records contains the wanted listing of ILC reports.
· Enter numerous significant keywords if you know exactly what you want in order to keep the retrieved listing as short as possible. Enter only the main keywords if you are at the beginning of your perusing the retrieved list of reference record titles will provide you with a useful overview of past and present UN activities/ publications related to your topic.
· For example, if you plan to do research in the social responsibility of transnational corporations, search only for "transnational corporations" to find an informative mix of reference records listed.