Researching the United Nations

  • UN System
  • Databases
  • Basic Documents
  • Yearbooks
  • Background
  • Research Tools
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The United Nations System

The United Nations ("UN") was established in 1945 with the signing of the United Nations Charter. There are six principal organs of the UN:

The General Assembly is the main deliberative body with representatives from all member states; the Security Council has only 15 members and is responsible for peace and security; and ECOSOC coordinates. The UN is a huge organization. For purposes of this guide, we will focus on those institutions and documents which are legally relevant.

The UN web site provides a good starting point for UN research. It is important to first orient yourself: the subject you are researching might be the purview of one of the hundreds of subcommittees. It is probably better to get an idea of what has happened recently in the area you are researching than to plunge right in looking for documents. The UN provides press releases on its web site. It also publishes a regular newsletter called the UN Chronicle (Law Annex). For less recent news, the Yearbook of the United Nations (Law Annex JX 1977 A1 U53) is a good annual review of the business of the UN. Other parts of the UN publish yearbooks, and these can be a good way to get an overview of the actions of a UN body on the topic you are researching. The UN Handbook (Law Ref JZ4970 .U65 1996) is also produced annually and performs a similar function.

Once you have oriented yourself to the topic and UN body you are studying you can begin to look for specific documents. There are five types of UN document: press releases, "masthead" documents, official records, sales publications and periodicals. Mostly, you will be dealing with masthead documents, which include working documents, resolutions, country reports and other types of documents. These are identified by a document number. For example, E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.2/1987/WP.4/Add.1 is a document from the Economic and Social Council (E), the Commission on Human Rights (CN.4), the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (Sub.2), the working group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery (AC.2) in 1987. The rest of the document number describes the specific document. There is a good discussion of document numbers in the research guide at the UN website. As you can no doubt tell using document numbers takes some getting used to.

As for other documents: as indicated above, press releases can be found at the UN web site. Official records are the official publication of the documents you can find as masthead documents. The library does not carry the Official Records, but you may need to cite to them for blue book purposes. Sales publications will be listed in the library catalog if the library has purchased them, as will periodicals. From now on, any discussion of UN documents will refer to masthead documents.

To begin identifying types of documents you can use UN-I-QUE, a bibliographic database of important document series produced by the Dag Hammarskjöld library. Many UN documents are produced annually, and Unique can help you identify the document number of the type of document you need. The most recent documents are indexed on Readex's Access UN which can be reached through the library homepage. This is only available from BU computers. Readex indexes UN documents that are not for sale from the UN. The UN used to produce a paper index which is available through 1996, the UNDOC Current Index (Law Micro Index JX 1977 A1 U45). It has promised to replace this index with another product but we have not yet purchased a replacement (ODS or Unbisplus).

Once you have identified the documents you want you will need to find them. There are two microfiche collections of UN documents available to you: the Pappas collection of United Nations Documents (Law Micro) and the Mugar collection of United Nations Documents (Mugar Micro Mfiche). Readex offers several types of collections, Pappas has the collection of legally relevant documents and Mugar has the complete collection. Full-text documents are also available at the UN web site., although these will tend to be more current documents. Documents are available from the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council, including GA and SC resolutions.

Another good source of full text documents is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Especially useful are the United Nations Treaty Collection and the Treaty Bodies Database. The UN Treaty Collection includes the Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General (MTDSG), the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS), and other publication most of which are in PDF format. The Treaty Bodies Database includes documents produced by the UN and by individual countries under the various human rights treaties, and UNHCR, which includes documents related to refugees. Other UN sites have full-text documents, so it may be useful to hunt around the homepage of the UN body involved in the subject area you are researching. Finally, many important UN documents will be published in International Legal Materials (Law Annex, Westlaw-ILM, Lexis-INTLAW;ILM). The topics of treaties or the ICJ are not discussed here because they are discussed in the treaty research guide and the research guide to other sources of international law.

The UN is a very complex organization and there is no way to completely describe UN research completely in such a short guide. The purpose of this guide is just to get you started. Should you want a more detailed description of research in this area there are many good, and detailed, research guides.


United Nations Databases

Guide to UN Databases

United Nations Documents

Voting Records

Secretary-General's Reports

  • ODS
    • In the "Words of Title" field, type "Secretary-General report;" and
    • the subject in the full-text search box
  • UNBISnet
    • Type subject in the title fieldor the subject field; and
    • Under type of material, select the B15 Tag - reports/letters (UN Secretary-General) -
  • Reports to the Security council

Meeting records

  • ODS or UNBISnet
  • Verbatim Records of the Security Council document symbol
    • S/PV.[meeting #]
  • Verbatim Records of theGeneral Assembly document symbol
    • A/[sess.]/PV.[meeting #]
  • Summary Records of Subsidiary Bodiesdocument symbol
    • A/[body]/[sess]/SR.[meeting #] (e.g. A/C.3/63/SR.2)

Press Releases

Subject Research


Collections of Basic Documents

Basic Documents

  • UN Website: Main Documents
  • Charter of the United Nations; commentary and documents by Leland M. Goodrich, Edvard Hambro, and Anne Patricia Simons
    • Law Annex JX1977.A15 G6 1969
  • The Charter of the United Nations : a commentary edited by Bruno Simma ; in collaboration with Hermann Mosler
    • Law Annex JX1977 .C43 1994
  • United Nations Conference on International Organization (1945 : San Francisco) Documents. v. 1-22
  • Review of the United Nations Charter : a collection of documents Subcommittee on the United Nations Charter
    • Law Annex JX1977.2.U5 A525
  • UN Treaty Series (UNTS)

Status of Basic Documents

  • Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General (MTDSG)
  • Multilateral Treaties Deposited on the Web (MTDSG)

Other UN Documents


Yearbooks of UN entities and other IGOs

  • Yearbook of the United Nations
  • United Nations Juridical Yearbook
  • United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Yearbook
  • United Nations International Court of Justice Yearbook
  • United Nations Yearbook of the International Law Commission
  • CIJL yearbook/Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers
    • Law Annex K 115 A2 C55
  • Hague yearbook of international law = Annuaire de la Haye de droit international
    • Law Annex JX 18 H34
  • International Geneva yearbook
    • Law Annex JX 1995 I524 (see pg. 494 of the Guide to International Legal Research for more information).


Background on the United Nations

  • Yearbook of the United Nations
  • The encyclopedia of the United Nations and international relations / Edmund Jan Osmanczyk
    • Law Ref JX1977 .O8213 1990
  • United Nations Handbook, 1996
    • Law Ref JZ4970 .U65 1996
  • Annual review of United Nations Affairs
    • Law Annex JX 1977 A1 A5
  • Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs
    • Law Annex JX1977 A36 1955 and Mugar JX1977 .F552
  • Yearbook of the International Law Commission
  • United Nations Juridical Yearbook


Research Tools




Research Guides


Current Awareness

Ask a Reference Librarian

In the course of your research on the United Nations, if you have any questions or would like to discuss researching a particular topic, please contact David Bachman:

In Person: See a professional reference librarian during reference hours at the desk located inside the Pappas reading room.

By Phone: The Reference Librarians may be reached by phone at 617-353-3151 during reference hours.

Via Chat: The LiveChat service is available during reference hours.

The following services are limited to BU School of Law Students:

By Email: students may submit an email reference request.

By Appointment: students may make an appointment for an individual research consultation.



Page maintained by David Bachman
Last updated: August 2012

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