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Public International Law Research

A guide that highlights resources and recommended strategies for conducting research on international law topics.

Overview of the United Nations

General Overview of the United Nations

When you are considering a legal issue that implicates the United Nations, it is important to start your research with an understanding of how the United Nations is organized, including the specific duties and responsibilities of each individual organ. The United Nations is organized into six main organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat.

The following resources provide introductory information on each of these organs and are a good place to begin your research on the United Nations:

United Nations Website

The United Nations website provides a general overview of each organ, along with links to the websites for each of the six main organs.

United Nations Documentation Research Guide

This Research Guide is published by the United Nations and provides an overview of the United Nations organizational structure and the types of materials that are produced by each body.

Locating UN Primary Materials

Locating UN Primary Materials

UN Documents versus UN Publications

According to the Regulations for the Control and Limitation of Documentation, the UN defines documents and publications in different ways and uses those terms to refer to specific types of materials. The following are the basic definitions, along with a general overview of the types of content that fit within each definition.

  • UN Document: Document refers to a text submitted to a principal organ or a subsidiary organ of the United Nations for consideration by it, usually in connection with items on its agenda. UN Documents typically involve all underlying material that supports official publication, including meeting records, transcripts, and other reporting.
  • UN Publication: Publication refers to any written material which is issued by or for the United Nations to the general public. UN Publications include major studies, reports, statistical compilations, the Official Records of the principal organs, and the U.N.T.S.

UN Document Classification System

Each UN document has a unique symbol at the top right of the document or on the cover page. These symbols include both letters and numbers, and having a general understanding of this classification system can aid you in researching UN documents. The symbol typically looks like the following:

Below you will find a table outlining the first component. Note that there are additional secondary components to this classification system which allow for the identification subsidiary bodies. You can learn more about those on the UN website.

First Component Symbol Organ to Which Document is Submitted
A/- General Assembly
S/- Security Council
E/- Economic and Social Council
ST/- Secretariat

Online Resources for UN Documents and Publications

Yearbook of the United Nations

The Yearbook of the UN is the principal reference work of the UN and provides a detailed overview of the Organization's activities during the course of a year. All the yearbooks, from 1945 to the most recent, are available online and provide citation to the documentation and include the full text of resolutions. This is the ideal starting place for any research into UN primary materials.

United Nations Digital Library

The Digital Library includes UN documents, voting data, speeches, maps, and open access publications. You can access UN-produced materials in digital format and bibliographic records for print UN documents starting in 1979.

Official Document System

The UN official document system provides full text search of documents issued since 1993; resolutions of all principal organs & Security Council plenary documents since 1946. This database also provides access to the Daily Journals of New York and Geneva.

Declarations and Conventions Contained in General Assembly Resolutions

This collection provides online access to declarations and conventions issued by the General Assembly. The documents are searchable in a variety of ways, including chronologically and by subject area.

UN Data

UN Data provides access to a variety of statistical resources of the UN system from a wide range of departments and subject matter.

Secondary Sources on the United Nations