Selected U.N. Resources and Research Tools: Overview and Search Tips for Legal Research


by Wiltrud Harms


Published September/October 2007



Wiltrud Harms has been Reference Specialist for United Nations and Human Rights Law at the Law School Library (Boalt Hall) of the University of California at Berkeley since 1982.  She is a native of Germany where she received her law degree in 1971 ( Erste Juristische Staatsprüfung ).


Introductory Note : The resources described here are currently the most important finding tools for United Nations documents. Our aim is to help legal researchers select the tool best suited to their needs. The side-by-side column format was thought advantageous for purposes of an overview: a good way to organize the information and see the tools in relation to one another. The last (and longest) section offers search tips for each resource or finding aid.




Official Document

System of the United

Nations (ODS)

United Nations Biblio-graphic Information System (UNBISnet)

AccessUN: Readex

United Nations Index

Selected UN websites & pages

(with official documents and legally relevant information)

UN Info Quest


Location    Click AccessUN

(UCB access only)





























The main purpose of the ODS is to function as a multilingual system that searches for and re-trieves United Nations documentation – not,

however, UN sales publications , the UN Treaty Series or sub-scription periodicals [with one exception, see  (iii) below].


     ODS is comprised of seven databases, acces-sible via the Advanced Search screen . We con-sider here only those  

ODS (continued)        

with substantial content for legal research:  

(i) UN Documents,

(ii) Resolutions 1946-1993, and (iii) Daily journal – New York.


     Most documents in-

cluded in the ODS were issued after 1992, but selected General As-sembly and Security Council documents go back further (to the mid- or late eighties). Older documents are being added daily.

     NOTE: Resolutions of the main organs

(General Assembly, Se- curity Council, Economic and Social Council, and Trusteeship Council) go back to 1946.




The main purpose of UNBISnet is to offer a comprehensive online index/catalog for UN documents and publica-tions from 1979 onward (with older documents being added regularly). It is produced by the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library (DHL) in coope-ration with the UN library in Geneva.


    UNBISnet is com-prised of 3 databases: (i) Bibliographic Records (ii) Voting Records, and

UNBISnet (continued)  

(iii) Index to Speeches.


     NOTE: The ‘Biblio-graphic Records’ data-base also contains re-cords for non - UN mate-rials (such as books and journal articles) pub-lished worldwide on to-pics that are relevant to the UN. These materi-als are acquired and in-dexed by the DHL to support the work of the world body and its per-manent missions. The resulting bibliographic descriptions, particu-larly those of journal articles, can be very useful for researchers outside the Organiza-tion. UNBISnet alone offers these citations to books and articles coming from all regions of the world.

AccessUN is a com-mercially produced on-line index covering UN documents and publica-tions issued from 1946 to the present. Ac-cessUN functions pri-marily as finding aid for UN documents scanned onto READEX fiche. It is also valu-able, however, for UN document collections in paper because it is the only online index that  covers older UN docu-ments not yet incorpo-rated by UNBISnet.

AccessUN (continued)  



     Launched in July 1996 to serve as gateway to an immense store of infor- mation & documentation on the world body and its activities, the Homepage 

  _  leads to background information on the UN and its membership

  _  links to essential documentation & information on upcoming and ongoing ,  as well as past conferences

  _  leads ( via its “ Main Bodies ” link) to   sessional information and documenta-tion of the principal organs and their subsidiary bodies, with background information for each body

  _  brings up the UN Documentation Centre ( via the “Documents, Maps”

  Selected UN websites (continued)

link), described further below in (A.3)   

  _  provides access to five broad sub-ject areas reflecting the UN’s main mandates; every subject link contains various sublinks covering the many UN bodies and programs active in these areas. Here can be found sessional in-formation and documentation on the activities of each body, as well as se-lected UN publications. For more  about “International Law”, the single most important subject link for our purposes, see (A.2) further below.

    The time period covered by the va- rious UN bodies and activities differ.



     Launched in December 1996 by the Office of the High Commissioner to  become the most complete source of information and documentation on UN action for the protection and promo-tion of human rights.

     The time period covered by each body working for human rights varies.

UN-I-QUE is an online ready-reference file created and maintained by the UN Dag Ham-marskjöld Library  (DHL) to respond to questions dealing main-ly with UN materials of a recurrent nature . It provides comprehen-sive listings (in reverse chronological order) of

  _  sessional or annual reports of UN bodies;

  _  periodic or infre-

quent reports of spe-cial representatives of

the Secretary-General

UN-I-QUE (cont’d)  

  _  periodic or infre-quent reports submit-

ted by special rappor-teurs in the areas of international law and human rights.


     These listings are not only valuable for research and refe-rence assistance but also useful for bindery preparation and collec-tion development.


     Comprehensive and up-to-date coverage from 1946 to the pre-sent.

What they offer / Special










offer /







































offer /
































(i) The UN DOCU-MENTS database:

    By far the most im-portant and largest da-tabase of the ODS sys-tem. It contains the Of-ficial Records of the United Nations and ma-ny thousands of mast-head documents (also

known as “working

ODS (continued)

documents” or “mimeos”) most of which were issued after 1992.



1946-1993 database:

     Only accessible from the Advanced Search screen; retrieves reso-lutions in the final Of-

ficial  Records version only. Covers resolutions adopted by the

  _  General Assembly between 1946 and 1996 (not ending 1993, note)

   _  three Councils (Se-curity, Economic and Social, Trusteeship) from 1946 to 1993, incl.

     NOTE: Resolutions adopted later (in provi-sional or final version) can be found only in the UN Documents database ( see above ).


(iii) The DAILY JOUR-NAL – NEW YORK data- base:

     This database forms an exception to the rule that the ODS does not contain subscription

periodicals: we can ac-cess here the Journal of the United Nations  

(beginning with the July

ODS (continued)

1996 issue) although it is received by paid sub-scription only.

     The Journal contains

  _  information about upcoming meetings

   _    a Summary of Offi-cial Meetings convened a day or so earlier  

  _   UN document sym- bols 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.




     The most important and largest database of UNBISnet. It contains catalog records for pub-lications issued from 1979 to the present (typically) – and is ex-panding as older records continue to be added.   

UNBISnet (continued)  

     NOTE: UNBISnet   became even more valu- able when a direct link was created between the catalog record and  actual documents in ODS (for materials issued from 1992 on-

wards). The number of catalog records for older UN documents linked to the ODS continues to increase as the ODS itself adds more and more older  documents.

     Resolutions adopted by principal organs of the UN (GA, SC, TC, ECOSOC) got special treatment: all of their bibliographic descrip-tions - going back to 1946 - are linked to the ODS.  


     C atalog records for UN materials are typi-cally very detailed and frequently give useful additional information (relating to treaties, for example). The same can-not be said for records created for non-UN sources held by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library; expect less here.

UNBISnet (continued)  


   (ii) VOTING RECORDS database:

     Offered for the General Assembly and the Security Council: for the Assembly voting records are available from 1983 onward, for the Security Council from 1946. Each record has a link to the full text of the resolution .


     (iii) INDEX TO SPEECHES database:

     Speeches of the    

  _  General Assembly, Security Council and Economic & Social Coun-cil: beginning with 1983   

  _  Trusteeship Council: beginning with 1982.

     The Index also pro-vides links to the full text of speeches of the

  _  General Assembly:  starting in 1990

  _  Security Council: beginning in 1983

  _  Trusteeship Council  and Economic & Social Council: beginning in 1993

(i) AccessUN offers

BIBLIOGRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS for Official Records and masthead documents which were reproduced on Readex fiches. Also included are citations to UN sales publica-tions although their images do not exist on

AccessUN (continued)

Readex microfiche. Be-yond that, AccessUN offers citations to multilateral and bilate-ral treaties  - including instruments of subse-quent treaty actions   such as ratifications – all published in the UN Treaty Series (begin-ning with vol. 925). These citations to UNTS treaties are a unique feature of




To search AccessUN efficiently for cita-tions to treaties pub-lished in the UNTS, treaty researchers should become familiar with the following special features:    

  _  the “Document Number” field is used for the UN treaty re-gistration number, fol-lowed by the parenthe-tical phrase “Treaty Series”, for example, 27531 (Treaty Series)

_  UNTS volume and page number appear in the (searchable)  

AccessUN (continued)

“Series Information” field - thus a UNTS citation can be used for finding the respec-tive treaty citation in AccessUN , see the search example below

_  Parties to bilateral agreements are inclu-ded 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.  


     (iii) AccessUN

offers selected FULL-TEXT DOCUMENTS , appended to the res-spective bibliographic citations incl. SC reso-lutions (from 1974 on) and GA and ECOSOC resolutions from 1983.

(A) The UN HOME PAGE includes links to the following pages:



    The UN Charter can be found under the heading “Main Documents”. Among the items grouped together here is a link to the most up-to-date version of the Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs (which also offers

full-text searching of the publication).

Selected UN websites (continued)

Apart from “Main Documents”, this page does not offer much for legal research.



     This is the most important UN web page for international law research, and all of its sublinks are worth explo-ring, particularly:  

     (i)The Research Guide .  Provides an overview of the various legal bodies and courts established by the United Nations and should be visited first;

     (ii) The page of the Sixth Com-mittee (the “legal arm” of the Gene-ral Assembly”) offers in its “ Summa-ries of work ” detailed descriptions of the Assembly’s current work on legally relevant agenda items;

     (iii) The page of the International Law Commission   has as a large section entitled “Researching the work of the Commission”. However, the single most valuable single research aid is the Analytical Guide to the Work of the International Law Commission .



     The Centre provides

     (i) links to the ODS, UNBISnet and UN-I-QUE   

     (ii) access to the UN Documenta-tion Research Guide   - an expert’s guide to the UN documentation sys-tem (with search tips included), and special chapters on the environment, human rights, int’l law, peacekeeping;

     (iii) Resolutions of the General

Selected websites (continued)   

Assembly and the Security Council (going back to 1946), and of the

Econ. & Social Council (back to 1992);

     (iv) Sessional listings of General

Assembly meetings and documents be- ginning with the 57 th session (2002/ 2003) - with links to the full texts;

     (v) Yearly listings (from 1994 on-ward) of Security Council meetings & documents with links to the full texts (docs. are grouped in categories);

     (vi) access to UN Pulse , keeping re- searchers abreast of recently issued major UN publications and documents and offering links to their full text.



     (i) an INTERNATIONAL LAW link providing a comprehensive list of UN human rights treaties and declara-tions; for any instrument selected, the full text and status information is brought up;         

     (ii) an ISSUES link that lists hu-man rights topics considered by the UN, in alphabetic order; click a topic and obtain a selection of relevant, important UN documents;      

     (iii) a HUMAN RIGHTS BODIES link with info & documents on all UN bodies working for human rights and a sublink “Search the Treaty Body

Database” (see Search Pointers below )


      More than 6,500 reference records were created for this ready-reference file.  Every record is identi-fied by a (searchable) title or heading and a (non-searchable) re-cord number consisting

UN-I-QUE (cont’d)  

of the letter “R” fol- lowed by a 5-digit num-ber: e.g. UN-I-QUE’s reference record for the Report of the Hu-man Rights Council  was given the title, “Human Rights Council. Report” and the record number “R06502”. Researchers (and catalogers) inte- rested in creating di-rect links to reference records of UN-I-QUE should note that the URL of each record begins with: and ends with the individual re-cord number as last component.  Example: the URL for the re-cord that lists reports of the Human Rights Council, is


UN-I-QUE presents its search results by listing the found re-cord titles in alphabe-tical order, with each title/heading serving as link to the individual reference record.

   Many records include

UN-I-QUE (cont.)

useful information, e.g. the record for the Report of the Human Rights Council   pro-vides a reference to the resolution which established the Coun-cil, gives the series symbol for its docu-ments and includes the  URL for its website.



     A reference record

may have just one en-try or many, numbering at times more than 60.  These entries do not lead to full-text docu-ments nor detailed bibliographic descrip-tions but offer impor- tant information about the listed items, e.g.:

  _  document symbol and/or sales number

  _  publication date

  _ session specifica-tion (if applicable)

  _  publication in one of the United Nations Official Records series (if applicable).






Guides/ Search Instructions

Documents are normally  added to the database as soon as they are ready for publication.

ODS (continued) 

An introduction to the ODS is available as a PowerPoint presenta-tion of the DHL at:

     The search instruc-tions contained in the ODS “Help” links (acces-sible from both search screens) are not well or-ganized but do provide  detailed information and some useful examples.

     NOTE: Each search field label links to that part of the Search In-structions which is rele-vant for the field. 

Varies. Documents of the main organs are in-dexed with minor delay only (approx. 2-4 weeks)

UNBISnet (continued)  

An introduction to UNBISnet is available as a PowerPoint presen-tationis of the DHL at













AccessUN (continued)

AccessUN’s “ Help ” link offers well written

and clearly organized search instructions with numerous search examples included.  Search fields and search options are described in detail with a surprising ex-ception: no details or examples are given for AccessUN’s citations to treaties that were published in the UN Treaty Series .









Selected websites (continued)

A PowerPoint presentation entitled UN Web Search was designed by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library to present an overview of the UN website and de-monstrate various search methods. It is available at:


     The “Search” link of the UN Home-page allows for BASIC and AD-VANCED searching. Both search screens offer a “ Search Tips ” link, containing very detailed instructions with numerous examples.


Items are usually lis-ted within a few days after receipt by the Dag Hammarskjöld Lib.

UN-I-QUE (cont.)

From UN-I-QUE’s Homepage link to:

“Search Tips”. Here we find tips & examples on how to search for UN documents, publica-tions 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 re-quested materials: e.g. if you need human rights rapporteurs’ re-ports (hr) on freedom of religion search for <religion hr>.
























































































(i) “ Advanced Search” versus “Simple Search” and “Global Search”  

     Using the “Advanced Search” mode is no more difficult than “Simple

Search”. It has the ad-vantage of leading us to additional databases and allows a greater choice of search options.     

     “Global Search” was implemented only a few years ago. Using a diffe-rent search engine, its full-text searches re-trieve even older docu-ments that are stored in

ODS (continued)

image format only – something the “Ad-

vanced Search” engine is not able to do. For most other searches however, the latter is preferable.   


    (ii) A  symbol entered into the symbol field can be truncated to just one letter if the first symbol element consists of a single let-ter: to search all Gene-ral Assembly docu-ments, for example,

just enter “A/”.


     (iii)   Full-text Sear- ching

     The “UN Documents” and the “Daily journal – New York” databases allow full-text searching for words and phrases, and also the use of boo-lean  operators such as AND, OR, AND NOT, SENTENCE, and PARA-GRAPH.

     A question mark re-places 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

ODS (continued)

searching for documents dealing with specific to-pics or concepts that are not used as subject terms by the UN biblio-graphic system. For ex-ample: significant harm SENTENCE aquifer state* PARAGRAPH (reparation OR compen-sation)  – and selecting “ Use boolean operators ” as search type.


     NOTE: When the re-sult of an ODS full-text search seems unsatis-factory, try to comple-ment it with searches using the “Search” link of the UN Homepage and “ Global Search ”. 


(iv) Using UNBISnet as a portal to the ODS

     For all searches other than full-text,  UNBISnet is the best tool for finding UN do-cuments: once the sym-bol 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 of-fer direct links to ODS.

All three UNBISnet databases offer a “New Keyword Search” as well as a “New Browse List

Search” (“new” here dis-tinguishes them from the earlier/original UNBISnet interface).


     (i) A “New Browse List Search ” can be con-venient and efficient if  the exact beginning of the document symbol,  sales number, title, etc. is known.


    (ii) For most searches

UNBISnet (continued)  

the powerful “ New Key-word Search” is prefe-rable. It allows several search criteria to be combined. The “General Keyword” search crite-rium (for the “Bibliogra-phic Records” database) is especially valuable when looking for infor-mation possibly con-tained in a content note. Note that UNBISnet’s catalogers usually in-clude in a content note information about any legal text annexed to the document in hand.


    (iii)  In order to ex-clude unwanted materi-als , limit your search results to a particular

  _  database (for sepa-rating UN from non-UN materials)

  _  type of material (e.g. UN resolutions)

  _  type of record (e.g. journal articles)

  _  language

  _  year or years of  publication.


     (iv) The ability to re-strict the search using a “ Type of Material Code is particularly valuable

UNBISnet (continued)  

for legal research. We recommend using the (B01) code first (resolu-tions/decisions – UN), followed by the (B16) code (reports/studies). The items retrieved in this manner will often be the most substantive documents issued by the UN on a particular topic - and may be all that the legal researcher needs.


     (v)   For human rights research the following  “type of material codes are particularly useful : (B14) for reports of States parties to vari-ous agreements, and (B21) for NGO written statements.


    (vi) Subject terms  assigned by UNBISnet

may differ from those of the Library of Con-gress, e.g “transnatio-nal corporations” is used for “international busi-ness enterprises”.  Note

that UNBISnet created 2 subject terms for ma-terials containing trea-ties and declarations:

  _  Treaties (Text)    

  _  Declarations (Text).

(i)  Treaty citations in AccessUN are valuable

for researchers who want to view a treaty  in the United Nations Treaty Series data-base of UNTC Online but are unable to lo-cate it there because they know only the UNTS citation for the treaty (e.g. 1577 UNTS 3) . Such a refe-rence cannot be used for searching the UN

Treaty Series data-base – but it can be used for locating the

AccessUN (continued)

respective treaty cita-tion in AccessUN: in this index, every trea-ty citation includes the UNTS volume and page number in the (search-able) “Series Informa-tion” field.


     EXAMPLE : When you only have a UNTS citation such as 1577 UNTS 3 and need to view the  agreement in the ‘UN Treaty Series’ database, go through the following steps:     

  _  On the AccessUN search screen, enter <volume 1577 and p. 3> [p. + space + number] and search “in All Fields”: it will bring up the wanted treaty ci-tation, covering the 1989  Convention on the Rights of the Child

 _  Note the treaty’s identification as “Mul-tilateral” and the trea-ty registration number 27531 (in the “Docu-ment Number” field)

  _  Access the UN Treaty Series data-base and select the

“Advanced Search”:

  _  Select as “Type

AccessUN (continued)

of Agreement”:

<Multilateral> and

 _ Enter <27531> in the  “UN Treaty Registra-tion Number” field and

  _  Click <Search> to retrieve the wanted (“original”) agreement.


(ii)  Treaty citations in AccessUN are valuable

for researchers who do not have access to the UNTC Online (or do not desire to use it) but need to know the  

  _ 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 con-clusion, etc.



If you need a citation for an original treaty 

  _ Enter < treaty se-ries> in the “Document Number ” field

  _ Enter < text > in a “Title” field

  _  Add treaty speci-fic data, e.g. enter in a Title field: <child and convention not ratifi-cation not accession>.


     (i) About the “Search” link

In 2003, a GOOGLE search engine was implemented on the UN website and ( via the “Search” link) allows re-searchers to conduct powerful full-text searches of all materials posted on the UN website and any site linked to it . This makes it possible to search the text of materials posted on the UN website and on the website of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights , for example, simultaneously.


     (ii) What the “Search” link can find    

The UN website has links to the ODS, and most of its documents are con-tained in the ODS database. However,

Selected websites (continued)

there are materials on the UN website (and sites linked to it) 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 re-trieve them, it is a good idea to try the “Search” link on the UN website. This may reward us with

  _  unedited advance versions of se-lected 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 dea-ling with human rights or trade and development issues

  _ UN publications which are (pre-sently) only available in electronic ver-sion, e.g. the Legislative History of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN Doc. HR/PUB/07/1).


     (iii)  Searching by title

The “Search” link of the UN Home has a “Basic” and “Advanced Search” option. The latter has several advan-tages, among them the freedom to search by phrase or keyword, ways to restrict the search, and the ability to rank/sort results by relevance or date. Conduct a search for a UN pub-lication whose title is known, by ente-ring the title as a PHRASE search and sort results by relevance. The desired publication (or webpage that posted

Selected websites (continued)

it) will usually be among the first  items listed.


    (iv)  Searching by document symbol To find the document or publication belonging to a known document symbol (say HR/PUB/07/1), enter the symbol as a PHRASE search and sort results by relevance. This works very nicely for UN documentation posted on the UN website. The item sought will usu-ally be listed first and reveals at a glance that it does contain the full text: the trailing elements of the URL will be the document symbol and language identification (thus the last elements of the URL for A/CN.4/525 will read: …A/CN.4/525&Lang=E).


(B) The HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS website offers in its “Human Rights Bodies” page a sublink: “Search the Treaty Body Database” (new URL= ). A user guide is not available and the Keyword search does not function (yet). The new interface enables us to combine various search criteria, including list- ings from three drop-down menus, one of which offers more than thirty dif-ferent document types to choose from. (They are briefly described on pages 20-23 of Fact Sheet No. 30: ).

As at 12 August 2007, the old treaty body database is still accessible at   

(i)  UN-I-QUE’s link to  “Search Tips” should be visited by every user 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 refe-rence file: they men-tion, for example, con-ferences and summits as well as plans or pro-grams of action adop-ted by UN bodies and

UN-I-QUE (cont.)

explain which type of documents are listed for these categories and how to search for them.

(ii) In most cases, one should prefer ALL WORD searches to  PHRASE searches because the record

titles (or rather “hea-dings”) 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 abbrevia-ted titles for certain recurring publications or documents. On the other hand, searchable information may be ad-ded (in brackets) to the name of a body when the given name does not seem suffi-ciently 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 pre-sently the exact title

UN-I-QUE (cont.)

of the ILC’s sessional report. Enter instead: international law com-mission report  – and select “Match ALL worlds”. The first of four retrieved records contains the wanted listing of ILC reports.


(iii) Enter numerous significant keywords if you know exactly what you want in order to keep the retrieved listing as short as possible. 


(iv) Enter only the main keywords if you are at the beginning of your research : perusing the retrieved list of refe-rence record titles will provide you with a use-ful overview of past & present UN activities/ publications related to your topic. For exam-ple, if you plan to do research in the social responsibility of trans-national corporations , search only for <trans-national corporations>  to find an informative mix of reference re-cords listed.