UPDATE: A Basic Guide to International Environmental Legal Research

By Heidi Frostestad Kuehl

Heidi Frostestad Kuehl is Director of the David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library and Associate Professor of Law. She holds a law degree from Valparaiso University School of Law with a specialization in International Trade and Development and a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Iowa.

Published May/June 2022

(Previously updated in April 2008, November/December 2010, August 2013, and May/June 2017)

See the Archive Version!

1. Introduction

International environmental law is an ever-changing, constantly expanding, and intriguing topic for international legal research. When decisions and collaborations occur between nations across international boundaries and treaties or agreements are made to cooperate for environmental concerns, disputes inevitably transpire because of trade implications for the respective nations, safety concerns and cleanliness of environmental resources among shared borders, or problems with enforcement mechanisms for liability under agreements or treaty provisions relating to the environment. The vastness of this area of international law includes the environmental sub-issues of population, biodiversity, global climate change, ozone depletion, preserving the Antarctic regions, movement of toxic and hazardous substances, land or vessel-based pollution, dumping, conservation of marine living resources, trans-boundary air and water pollution, desertification, and nuclear damage, among others.

To begin research in international environmental law, a researcher should have a basic understanding of international law and authority: for example, knowledge of treaty research and an awareness of the types of international agreements and their effect in nations of the world as result of reservations, understandings, or declarations. As noted in this research guide, the number of international environmental treaties is manageable by sub-topic, so identification of the appropriate sub-topic or category of international environmental law is essential to narrowly tailor research and avoid getting bogged down in the wealth of information. Like many areas of international law, regulation and implementation of the treaty terms are at the national level.

Thus, some knowledge and research of foreign laws in the countries of focus for a research problem is necessary for thorough research and analysis. This guide will provide an overview of the key terms, general starting points by sub-topic of international environmental law and correlating treaties and agreements, a summary of the essential websites and secondary sources for international environmental legal research, and an approach for researching the primary law of foreign jurisdictions for this topic. Finally, an overview of the prominent international organizations and correlating documentation produced for international environmental law and blogs for current awareness in this field is provided for a comprehensive overview. For other specialized topics in international environmental law research consult GlobaLex articles:

2. General Starting Points and Key Abbreviations

Like other areas of specialized international law, international environmental law follows the same sources and categories of law as primary authority under Article 38 of the Statute of the I.C.J. Those include treaties, custom, general principles recognized among nations, decisions, and other secondary authority such as the writings of prominent scholars in the field. Therefore, a researcher should start with identifying the applicable treaties in force and analyzing those nations, which are the parties to the agreement. After determining all applicable treaties based on the facts of the research question, then the researcher can uncover national laws, which might accordingly follow the treaty terms or deviate. Because foreign and international legal research can be difficult, it is often wise to consult a comprehensive secondary source on the topic, such as a treatise or law journal article. Before even approaching the treaties, though, it is helpful to decipher the tricky acronyms that emerge when studying international environmental law, especially in the context of the treaties and agreements.

Historically, the timeline of treaties that are often identified as monumental in the formation of international environmental law include: the Stockholm Conference (1972), UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) (1982), World Conference on Environment and Development (1987), UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992), and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002). A helpful overview of international environmental law is provided in International Environmental Law in a Nutshell by Lakshman D. Guruswamy with Kevin L. Doran (West 2021) for those researchers unfamiliar with this area of international law. The Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations is a very helpful resource for deciphering international legal abbreviations for publications. As discussed below, there are also many sub-categories of treaties based on the type of environmental concern or prevention of certain types of deterioration or liabilities for pollution. Here are some of the most commonly used abbreviations and acronyms for treaty research in international environmental law (however, keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list):

3. Treaty Research

3.1. Sub-Topics for International Environmental Law

Because of the many possible sub-topics available for international environmental law, it is helpful to have a table of categories and correlating agreements. The following table is a table of international agreements, treaties, and websites for international legal research based on the eight sub-topics of hazardous waste, nuclear waste, ocean and marine sources, ozone and protection of the atmosphere, pollution, protection of species and wildlife, sustainable development, and trade and the environment. When available, I have linked to sources of the original .pdf document available online.











Basel Convention (** 1989)

Basel Convention Amendment (1995)

Protocol on Liability and Compensation for Damage Resulting from Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes


OECD Council Decision and Guidance Manual (2009)

Secretariat of the Basel Convention

“Basel Ban Amendment”: Secretariat of the Basel Convention

Decisions Related to the Basel Convention and its Protocol

United Nations Environmental Programme: Protocol on Liability and Compensation

Guidance Manual for the Control of Transboundary Movements of Recoverable Wastes


*Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“NPT”) (1968)

*Convention on Nuclear Safety (1994)

*Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (2001)

Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy [“Paris Convention”] (1960)

Protocol to Amend the Paris Convention (2004)

International Atomic Energy Agency NPT

International Atomic Energy Agency Circular

Reservations & Declarations to the Convention on Nuclear Safety

Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and Radioactive Waste Management

Nuclear Energy Agency’s Convention on Third Party Liability

Paris Convention Decisions, Recommendations, and Interpretations

2004 Protocol to Amend the Paris Convention


*Agreement for the Establishment of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council (1948) and Amendments (1961)

Agreement Instituting the Latin American Organization for Fisheries Development (OLDEPESCA) (1982)

*Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic (1982)

Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (1993)

Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources (1974) & “OSPAR” Convention (1992)

UNECE Water Convention (1992) and Amendment (2003)

UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (1997)

Australian Treaty Series: AustLII / FAO / UN Treaty Series

Amendments to the Agreement for the Establishment of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council

UN Treaty Series / NASCO

Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna /

Text of the Convention

NOAA / Text of the Convention (UN)

OSPAR Commission Website

UNECE Website / Status of Ratification / UN Treaty Series

International Water Law Project Website / Case Law


*Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer [“Vienna Convention”] (1985)

*Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979)

Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention (1997)

*Montreal Protocol (1987), *London Amendment (1990), *Copenhagen Amendment (1992), *Montreal Amendment (1997), and *Beijing Amendment (1999)

*United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)

United Nations Environment Programme / .PDF

Eur-Lex / .PDF / Eight Protocols

UN FCCC Website / .PDF

UN Development Programme: Montreal Protocol / UN Environment Programme / Status of Ratifications / London / Copenhagen / Montreal / Beijing / Kigali

UNFCCC Status of Ratifications / .PDF


Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001)

International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973) & 1978 Protocol (“MARPOL”)

*International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties (1969) and Protocol (1973)

International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage (2001)

International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (1969) & Protocols of 1976, 1984, 1992, and 2000 Amendments

*Minamata Convention on Mercury (2013)

Persistent Organic Pollutants website (Stockholm Convention) / Convention / National Implementation Plans / .PDF

IMO website /

Status of IMO Conventions

IMO website / .PDF (UN Treaty Series)

AustLII: Australian Legal Information Institute / IMO Website

IMO Website /

Status of IMO Conventions

Minamata Convention


Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development (1992), Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), the Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests (1992), and UN Forest Instrument (2018)

Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000)

Convention on Biological Diversity (1992)

*North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (1993)

*United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experiencing Serious Drought (1994) and Strategic Framework (2018-2030)

United Nations Sustainable Development / .PDF / UN General Assembly / UN Forest Instrument

Biological Diversity Website / Status of Ratification / .PDF

Convention on Biological Diversity Website / List of Parties / .PDF

Commission for Environmental Cooperation /

SICE: Foreign Trade Information System (OAS)

UNCCD Website / Status of Ratification /



Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development (1992), Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), and the Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests (1992)

*Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (1980)

*Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (“Ramsar”) (1971), *Paris Protocol (1982), and Regina Amendments (1987)

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992)

*Antarctic Treaty (1959) & *Protocol on Environmental Protection (1991)

United Nations Sustainable Development / .PDF

Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Secretariat / Basic Documents / .PDF / Status List (UN)

Ramsar Convention on the Wetlands Website / Status of Ratification (UNESCO) / Status of Ratifications (Ramsar) / Convention on Wetlands Text with Amendments


UN General Assembly Conference Report

Committee for Environmental Protection: Antarctic Treaty / Antarctic Treaty Secretariat / .PDF (Antarctic Treaty) / .PDF (Protocol) / Dep’t of State (Depositary) / Handbook of the Antarctic Treaty System / Protocol / Key documents


*Convention on Int’l Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [“CITES”] (1973)

*North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation [“NAAEC”] (1993)

Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998)

CITES Official Documents, Appendices I, II, and III, and Reservations Entered by Parties / Notifications to the Parties /

Switzerland Dep’t of Foreign Affairs (Depositary)

Commission for Environmental Cooperation/ SICE: Foreign Trade Information System (OAS)

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe / Text, Parties, and Signatories / .PDF

* - U.S. has signed and ratified the treaty and, thus, has become a party to the treaty.

** - Dates referenced are the date of signature of the treaties.

3.2. Essential Indexes and Finding Aids for Treaty Research

There are numerous treaty indexes for historical U.S. treaties, as well as world treaty series for international environmental legal research. In some instances, these treaty indexes are available in print and online. For international environmental law, it is most helpful to consult indexes containing world treaties, such as the United Nations Treaty Series, European Treaty Series, or EUR-Lex, and other unique online collections of world treaties like WorldLII. In the United States and depending on other jurisdictions for research, a researcher would also need to consult Treaties in Force, Treaty Actions/TIAS, and the Department of State’s Treaty Affairs website for international agreements reported under the Case-Zablocki Act. The following list of indexes and helpful online collections is not exhaustive, but the list includes comprehensive portals for international environmental legal research:

4. Finding the National Laws of Foreign Nations

In addition to locating the appropriate treaties and agreements for research in international environmental law, a researcher then needs to uncover any national laws of the foreign nations involved in a research question. Therefore, the following sources can help provide background information about the legal systems of countries of the world or links to the national laws of foreign nations. One basic online foreign law database for overviews of foreign laws on particular subjects, which might be available through a subscription at a local academic law library, is Foreign Law Guide: Current Sources of Codes and Basic Legislation in Jurisdictions of the World by Reynolds & Flores. The following list provides essential resources for uncovering national laws, more specifically, for international environmental law:

5. Searching Library Catalogs and Finding Print Resources

Before researching primary law, such as treaties and agreements and laws of the nations of the world, researchers might also consult their library catalog to uncover helpful treatises, books, or nutshells and basic background texts to better understand this area of international law. The following search terms and Library of Congress subject headings are successful when researching library catalogs:

In addition to the above categories, which are not comprehensive but give the researcher a head start, it is useful to search terms in the title of the international environmental agreement of focus or also search sub-topics of international environmental law. To begin, a researcher could use terms from any of the sub-topics listed above in Section III.A: “Hazardous Waste,” “Nuclear Waste,” “Ocean and Marine Sources,” “Ozone and Protection of the Atmosphere,” “Pollution,” “Protection of Species and Wildlife,” “Sustainable Development,” and “Trade and the Environment.” It would be essential, though, to brainstorm search terms that are relevant for the sub-topic of research and issues involved in the facts of the research problem.

Selected Print Titles for Basic International Environmental Law include:

6. Lexis+ and Westlaw

Both Lexis and Westlaw have varying holdings for Foreign and International law, as well as International Agreements and Treaties. In Lexis+, the following databases are helpful for research in international environmental law:

In Westlaw, the following databases are helpful for international environmental legal research:

7. Environmental Periodicals

There are many law journals, both domestic and international, which are devoted exclusively to environmental issues. These titles include the following prominent publications:

Recommended Indexes and Databases for Finding Law Review, Law Journal, and Scholarly Articles:

The above indexes and databases are helpful for locating international law and interdisciplinary journal articles related to international environmental law.

8. Comprehensive Internet Sites and Research Guides

There are numerous comprehensive portals and research guides for international environmental law, which can help guide a researcher during research. The following is a selective list of some of the most helpful and comprehensive websites for research on this topic:

9. Environmental Organizations, Institutes, and Statistics

There are many international organizations, including intergovernmental organizations (IGO’s) and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), which are helpful for identifying both primary and secondary sources for research. Because of the many sub-topics in international environmental law, some of these international environmental organizations are focused on a specialty topic in environmental law and only address limited sources for that topic. The following are helpful websites of organizations or institutes for expanding research to both secondary sources of law and statistics:

10. Environmental Law Blogs and Current Awareness Tools

Blogs, e-mail updates, and environmental websites with current news on international environmental law are a wonderful way to stay current while researching particular areas of law. The following are some websites, blogs, and news feeds that are helpful for supplementing research for this topic and staying current with the newest publications, research, and reports in international environmental law: