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United Nations: Mini Research Lesson



Fifty nation-states (“states”) met in San Francisco, California, from April 25-June 26, 1945, ultimately signing the United Nations Charter that created one of the largest and most influential international organizations in the world as of Oct. 24, 1945. This effort at improving international relations built upon previous prospective efforts, such as the Atlantic Charter and the League of Nations and international agreements to end World War I (Treaty of Versailles) and World War II (e.g., the German and Japanese surrenders).

While analyzing the founding documents of the League of Nations and the U.N., Pitman B. Potter noted that the U.N. Charter placed an emphasis on the Economic and Social Council, whereas specific mention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was omitted. Some of the ten substantive differences he outlined include: the composition and voting procedure of the Security Council; a shift from protection of minority groups to individual human rights; the lack of a structure for new or revised international legislation and agreements; an improved sanctions mechanism; and better amendment provisions. (Potter, 1945)

As of April 24, 2012, there were 193 member states of the United Nations. The major bodies of the U.N. are the Secretariat, the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council. The Secretary General is the head of the Secretariat, which employs approximately 44,000 world-wide to carry out U.N. operations on a daily basis. The Journal of the United Nations, published since January 10, 1946, is the historical record of the United Nations, containing meeting information, websites, and a list of official documents released on any given day. It has been available online since 2003. The U.N. also uses press releases, briefings, and various media to inform the citizens of the world of its activities.

General Assembly

As its name implied, the General Assembly is a body comprised of all member states that meets from September to December each year to discuss all international issues covered by the U.N. Charter. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding (and thus not primary international law), but they may help inform the status of customary international law or lead to treaties down the line. (Alistair Rieu-Clarke, 2005, at p. 26, citing paragraph 70 of the opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (July 8, 1996).) Each state gets a vote on a given General Assembly resolution, so resolutions with many “yes” votes may been viewed as an indication of customary or general principles of international law. Luckily, almost all the General Assembly Resolutions from all 66 sessions are also available from the U.N.’s regular website. Here is a sample General Assembly Resolution: A/RES/2678 (XXV): Question of Namibia (25th General Assembly, Regular Session, 1970).

Security Council

The Security Council can “lay down” international law, modify the Charter, stimulate the creation of international law, and help develop international law. All, as Pittman mentioned decades ago, with a heavy gloss of the realpolitik of the real world politics, of course.  (Sir Michael Wood’s lecture, Nov, 9, 2006.) Thus, given the importance of Security Council Resolutions and the deliberate process under which they are undertaken, it is not surprising that the full-text of such resolutions (from 1946-current) are readily available via the United Nations’ website. Here is a sample Security Council Resolution: S/RES/1964 (2010); Resolution 1964 (2010): The Situation in Sudan.

Economic and Social Council

While the Security Council and General Assembly have the greatest impact on the development of public international law, the Economic and Social Council has a stunningly broad mandate: addressing world-wide economic, social, and environmental issues. This effort employs “70% of the human and financial resources” of the U.N.! The U.N. Economic and Social Council also links to many of its documents on the U.N. website. Though coverage is not comprehensive, there is a good chance that documents produced after 2000 may be available full-text. Here is a sample document: ECOSOC Resolution 2006/15: Promoting Youth Employment.

International Court of Justice

The Statute of the International Court of Justice, annexed to the U.N. Charter, outlines the structure and procedures of the ICJ as the primary “decider” of disputes that states bring before it. The ICJ also offers advisory opinions, such as aforementioned nuclear weapons opinion and, more recently, the opinion on the wall in the Palestine. Researchers are able to access judgments, advisory opinions, and orders for free on the ICJ’s website. These materials are also available to subscribers of Lexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline. According to Article 38 of its Statute, the ICJ is to decide disputes brought before it in accordance with international law by applying: “international conventions, whether general or particular… ; international custom, as evidence of a general practice accepted as law; the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations; [and subject to Article 59], judicial decisions and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means…”

U.N. Depository and Document Distribution

We now see that that the U.N. symbol “A” represents a General Assembly document, “E” represents an Economic and Social Council document, “S” represents a Security Council document, (and “ST” represents a Secretariat document). Of course, there are many additional symbols in the UN documentation system. The system was (and is) especially important for the distribution of U.N. documents to 368 depository libraries in 135 countries, at which the public may consult the documents for free.

People with computer network access may also be able to use one of the following resources to get a known, needed U.N. document for free: The Official Document System of the United Nations (ODS) or the United Nations Bibliographic Information System (UNBISNET). The United Nations Library via HeinOnline also may have pertinent documents published by or about the U.N. After a relatively slow start, the U.N. has embraced the internet as a means of distributing its documentation.


The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT, 1969) was intended to help codify and develop the law of treaties to further international security and cooperation. Not surprisingly, entire scholarly books, not to mention articles, have been devoted to the VCLT itself. Similarly to how otherwise sovereign states may agree to move forward by submitting a contentious border dispute to the ICJ for a judgment, states may give up part of their sovereignty in order to become a party to a convention or treaty that might end a war, combat torture, genocide, etc., or facilitate trade among states (GATT/WTO).

Multilateral treaties, agreed upon by three or more U.N. states, are deposited with the U.N. and published in print, on microfilm, and, more recently, online, as part of the U.N. Treaty Series (U.N.T.S., 1946-current). the U.N. Treaty Series is also available in PDF format to those who have access to HeinOnline’s United Nations Library. The League of Nations Treaty Series (L.N.T.S., 1920-1946) is also included in the United Nations Library via HeinOnline. There are specialized compilations of multilateral compilations of treaties dated before 1920, especially if the  United States is a party, such as Bevans, the Flare Index. Sources for U.S. treaties (UST, TIAS, and the Statutes at Large) are also available via HeinOnline.

Selected Bibliography

  • United Nations: basic information, press releases, Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions, etc.
  • ODS: a more substantial backfile and index to a larger number of U.N. documents than the main U.N. website
  • UNBISnet: online catalogue (bibliographic info and/or full text of U.N. documents) at the U.N. Library



  • Edmund Jan Osmac̜yzk ; ed. & rev. by Anthony Mango. Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. New York: Routledge, 2003.  Law Reference KZ4968.O84 2003 (4 vols.)
  • Yearbook of the United Nations. Lake Success, NY: United Nations, 1947-.  Law Stacks (Basement) JX 1977.A37Y4 and (1947-2005) and Smith Gov Docs U.N Stacks (1947-2007)
  • Benedetto Conforti and Carlo Focarelli. The Law and Practice of the United Nations. Leiden/Boston: M. Nijhoff, 2010. 4th rev ed.  OhioLINK, CWRU Law on order
  • Sydney Dawson Bailey. The Procedure of the UN Security Council. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.  OhioLINK ebook
  • Vaughan Lowe, et al, eds. The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945. Oxford/New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.  Law Stacks JZ5006.7.U54 2008
  • Simon Chesterman, ed. Secretary or General?: The UN Secretary-General in World Politics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007. Smith Stacks JZ 5008 .S43 2007
  • Economic and Social Council. In Marcus Franda, The United Nations in the Twenty-first Century: Management and Reform Processes in a Troubled Organization. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, chapter 6.  OhioLINK
  • Alistair Rieu-Clarke. International Law and Sustainable Development: Lessons from the Law of International Watercourses. London/Seattle, IWA Pub., 2005.
  • Shabtai Rosenne. The Law and Practice of the International Court, 1920-1996. The Hague/Boston: M. Nijhoff, 1997. Law Stacks KZ6275.R67 1997 (4 vols.)
  • M.J. Peterson. The UN General Assembly. London/New York: Routledge, 2006.  OhioLINK
  • Sydney D. Bailey. The General Assembly of the United Nations; A Study of Procedure and Practice. New York: Praeger, 1964.   Law Storage  JX 1977.B22


(For full-text, check databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline, SSRN, etc.)

  • Joy Gordon. The Sword of Damocles: Revisiting the Question of Whether the United Nations Security Council is Bound by International Law 12 Chi. J. Int’l L. 605 (2012).
  • Andrew Strauss. Cutting the Gordian Knot: How and Why the United Nations Should Vest the International Court of Justice with Referral Jurisdiction. 44 Cornell Int’l L.J. 603 (2011).
  • Noelle Quenivet. Binding the United Nations to Human Rights Norms by Way of the Laws of Treaty. 42 Geo. Wash. Int’l L. Rev. 587 (2010).
  • James Sloan. The Use of Offensive Force in U.N. Peacekeeping: A Cycle of Boom and Bust? 30 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 385 (2007).
  • Edward Grosek. How to Research International Treaties and Agreements. 20 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L.J. 641 (1998).
  • Ruth Gordon. United Nations Intervention in Internal Conflicts: Iraq, Somalia, and Beyond. 15 Mich. J. Int’l L. 519 (1994).
  • Goler Teal Butcher. The Consonance of United States Positions on International Law With Advisory Opinions of the International Court of Justice. 30 How. L.J. 45 (1987).
  • Pitman B. Potter. The United Nations Charter and the Covenant of the League of Nations. 39 Am. J. Int’l L. 546 (1945). (full-text via HeinOnline)

CWRU Law Research Databases and Indexes

  • Access U.N. (Readex Index of United Nations documents, 1966-current)