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Public International Law: U.N. Research

This guide highlights key resources for international law research.

Useful Links and Guides

Research FAQs (How to do common research tasks):

Ask Dag (searchable FAQ list from the U.N. Library)

United Nations: research guides

American Society of International Law U.N. Research Guide by John Heywood

Founding Documents, Commentaries and History

The United Nations has three founding documents:


History of the U.N. and international topics/agreements

Access to Documents

U.N. official documents consist of:

  • Official Records: These are the final records of the General Assembly, ECOSOC, Security Counsel and the Trusteeship Council (not the International Court of Justice or the Secretariat). They may include resolutions and decisions, committee reports, and meeting records. Items described as “supplements” or “annexes” are also typically considered Official Records.
  • Masthead Documents: These are preliminary or precursor documents, consisting of drafts, initial publications of certain items, working documents, and a variety of miscellany. Some Masthead Documents are eventually published as Official Records resulting is a document that may have two different UN Document Numbers.

The U.N. also produces “unofficial documents” that are a collection of miscellaneous newsworthy documents (press releases, periodicals, articles, etc.) or Sales Publications (available for sale to the public).

Documents are assigned alpha-numeric indicators to help identify them by group and type.  Consult the document symbol guide produced by the U.N. Library to help decipher and search by document symbol.

These are the documents that are available online (Older documents are being scanned - see status of digitization:

  • All United Nations documents from 1993
  • All resolutions of the Principal Organs from 1946
  • All Security Council plenary documents from 1946 in English, French and Spanish
  • All supplements to the Official records of the General Assembly from 1946

Material that is not available online, may be available in print from the Government Documents Collection at the University of Hawai‘i Hamilton Library. Also, you can request documents from the Dag Hammerskold Library if something is unavailable online.

Before searching for documents, you may want to consult the U.N. tutorial linked below, or consult the recommendations listed in the Useful Links area on this page.

U.N. Tutorial on How to Find Documents

Access UN (requires UH username and password):  Index to United Nations documents from 1945, including

  • Official Records,
  • masthead documents,
  • draft resolutions,
  • meeting records,
  • UN Sales Publications
  • UN Treaty Series citations

‚ÄčUnited Nations Digital Library (UNDL):  The UNDL includes UN documents, voting data, speeches, maps, and open access publications in digital format and bibliographic records for print UN documents starting in 1979. This resource links data between related documentation such as resolutions, meeting records and voting, and filtering searches by UN body, agency or type of document.

Online Document System (ODS): The ODS provides access to the full text of resolutions of principal organs including Trusteeship (1946 - ), and the Official Records and Meetings (late 1980's - ).  

  • Official Records and Meetings (late 1980s – present)
  • HINT: Use the UNBIS thesaurus to identify the United Nations lexicon for the topic you are researching. Use the words provided by the U.N. to run high yield subject searches in ODS database. For example, the “right to selfdetermination” is called “self-determination of peoples” in U.N. documentation.


  • Recurrent Documents in UN’s Official Records
    • General Assembly debates by country
    • Annual reports of UN bodies
      • Example: type asia pacific report to find the annual reports of Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific.


UN Institutions

The UN has six principal organs, as laid down in Article 7 of its founding Charter. These are listed below. In addition, there are a large number of IGOs, Commissions, and subsidiary bodies that have specific missions and produce documents related to their work. A listing of those entities can be found on the U.N. website:

The General Assembly: Policy-making body. All member states are represented. It has six main committees which also produce their own documentation. The International Law Commission is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly.

  • The Sixth Committee is the Legal Committee. The document symbol for the Sixth Committee is A/C.6/

The Security Council: Primarily responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It has five permanent members, plus ten members elected for two-year terms.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): Manages economic and social development work and draws up policy in this area. It has many subsidiary bodies (i.e., the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Commission on the Status of Women).

The International Court of Justice: The U.N. judicial body, often referred to as the World Court. See the section on the ICJ under International Courts and Tribunals for more information about this institution.

The Secretariat: UN administrative organ. Carries out the day-to-day work of the UN; it is headed by the Secretary-General.

The Trusteeship Council: The Council was set up after the Second World War to administer various territories and oversee their transition to self-government. It was suspended in 1994 when the last of the trust territories became independent.