Researching International Human Rights Law


Researching International Human Rights Law
Judy Gire, Library Director
Sources of International Law
International human rights law is part of public international law and focuses on the protection of individuals and groups against violations of their rights under international law. It excludes, but is related to, humanitarian law which addresses human rights in wartime and international criminal law.
When researching international law issues, Article 38 of the International Court of Justice Statute lists the sources of international law in order of their weight as authority:
1.      International conventions and treaties
2.      International custom as evidence of a general practice accepted as law
3.      General principles of law recognized by civilized nations (doctrines of fairness and justice applied universally in legal systems throughout the world)
4.      Judicial decisions and teachings of the most highly qualified publicists
The first three sources are primary sources while judicial decisions and teachings of the most highly qualified publicists are treated as secondary sources. The main sources of human rights law are international treaties which can be universal or regional, narrow or broad. Certain instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decisions of human rights bodies, national laws and UN resolutions may rise to the level of customary law.
Getting Started
            Introductory Guides
Excellent textual discussion of how to do international legal research on the Internet, highlighting important primary and secondary sources. The section on International Human Rights is a great starting point to orient the researcher and link to many relevant sources.
This research guide focuses on human rights sources related to various United Nations bodies.
Produced by Hauser Global Law School Program of New York University, Globalex offers high quality legal research guides on various international subjects as well as timely articles on international law topics and venues including human rights. Offer search function.
                        ASIL Electronic Information System for International Law (ESIL)
                        American Society of International Law’s comprehensive site with links to law instruments, web sites and online research guides. Includes subsection on human rights law.
                        Guide to Law Online (GLIN)
                        Law Library of Congress portal to Internet links for reference sources for nations and regions. Includes international sources.         
                        United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Library
                        Good place to access U.N. information and documents.
                        University of Minnesota Human Rights Library
                        Comprehensive source of links to human rights documents and sources efficiently organized. One of best sites for human rights research.
            Nongovernmental Organization Web Sites (NGO)
            Web sites for relevant nongovernmental organizations are also good starting places for research. While they often provide well-organized information about relevant laws and country conditions, most NGO Web sites are designed to inform and mobilize the public and are not intended primarily for lawyers and may not be as efficient as a relevant treatise, article or research guide.
            To locate an NGO on your topic, try Web searches with the terms human rights, advocates, NGO and nongovernmental organizations in combinations with terms related to your topic. The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library’s list of human rights organizations can also be helpful.
            Check for treatises on international human rights topics by leading authorities. Search by  author and title if known or by subject heading or keyword in an online library catalog.
            Useful subject headings include:
                                    -human rights
                                    -civil rights
                                    -civil rights (international law)
            You can also add a geographical limitation to the subject headings above to locate information on human rights in a particular country or region:
                                    -human rights – Angola
            Additionally, you can search by more specific topics or groups:
                                    -asylum, right of
                                    -women’s rights
                                    -Indians of South America – civil rights
            Most international human rights treatises are classed under KZ.
·         MelCat
                        Online catalog of all Law Library treatise holdings.
·         NELLCO Catalogs
Provides access to online catalogs of NELLCO member libraries including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia and NYU. Search individual library catalog or search combinations to identify relevant treatises.
·         Interlibrary Loan
See Librarian Kathy Fletcher if you need to interlibrary loan treatises not available in the law library.
            Periodical Articles
Many law reviews and journals include articles on human rights topics which are sources for current information and citations to relevant material.
·         LegalTrac
Index of Anglo-American legal periodicals and law reviews. Search by author or title if known or by subject heading or keyword.
Index to articles on foreign, comparative and international law published in legal periodicals and law reviews from around the world. Search by author, title, subject, keyword.
·         JSTOR 
                        Full-text database of leading interdisciplinary academic journals.
                        Full-text collection of working papers, journal articles, books, policy briefs, research projects and conference proceedings discussing theory, policy and research of international affairs.
·         Interlibrary Loan
                        See Librarian Kathy Fletcher if you need to interlibrary loan periodical articles not available through the law library.


            Published annually, yearbooks are often arranged by treaty and international activities and survey state practice. They frequently identify important new legislation, case law and diplomatic practice relating to international law and are a good source of customary law.

  • HeinOnline Foreign & International Law Resources Database


                        Includes prominent yearbooks from around the world in PDF format as well as a digest of U.S. practice in international law.

            Encyclopedias, ALR and Restatements
Authoritative encyclopedia on public international law topics written by scholars and practitioners from around the world.
·         ALR International
New ALR series devoted to collecting and analyzing relevant U.S. and foreign cases from English and non-English speaking countries on specific legal issues of international importance that have been litigated in the U.S. and global courts. Each annotation summarizes and analyzes the selected decision with references to additional relevant cases, jurisdictional table of cases, law and rules with cites to international decisions and research tips. Includes human rights cases. Available on Westlaw and in library’s print collection.
Unofficial, but respected summary of United States law and practice in international and foreign relations. Source of “customary” law for United States international law. Available on LexisNexis and Westlaw and in library’s print collection.
Human Rights Treaties
            Treaty Collections
You can usually retrieve individual treaties by name through an Internet search. Lacking the treaty name, there are several good collections of treaties to check:
Includes UN human rights treaties, but excludes regional human rights instruments. Click on “International Law” from the OHCHR homepage.
Links to many of the most important human rights treaties. When possible links to authoritative ratification information.
Collection includes the Leagues of Nations Treaty Series (L.N.T.S.), 1920-1944 and the United Nations Treaty Series (U.N.T.S.), 1944-. The latter collection includes full-text of all bilateral and multilateral treaties registered with the Secretariat. Most comprehensive treaty series and does include human rights treaties, but there can be a time lag.
Largest and most complete collection of all U.S. treaties and agreements, whether currently in force, expired or not yet officially published. Includes United States Treaties and Other International Agreements set. Features Treaty Metadata Search option.
·         Check Web Sites of Regional Organizations
Web sites for regional organizations like the Council of Europe or Organization of American States may provide text of human rights treaties between member countries.
Treaty Status
Checking for signatories, status, ratification and reservation information on treaties is important. Options include:
Best free source for checking status for human rights treaties.
Chapter 4 provides status information on human rights treaties.
Provides ratification information on human rights treaties.
·         Web Sites of Regional Organizations
Regional human rights organizations’ Web sites often provide status information for treaties of their member countries.
ASIL Treaty Page, Section 5, links to status and ratification information for treaties. Also includes information on declarations and reservations.
·         Department of State Web Page
                        The Department of State Web page has links to Treaties in Force                                          and to Treaty Actions to check status of U.S. treaties.
Case Law
            Decisions of international and national tribunals can be used as persuasive authority.  Check compilations of decisions for the international body or national tribunal entrusted with enforcing the treaty you are researching.
The International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights case law
databases include summaries from significant human rights decisions from domestic commonwealth courts and tribunals applying human rights law.
·         International Court of Justice
International Court of Justice Web site includes reports of this most significant adjudication in international law since 1947. Westlaw also provides all ICJ decisions in the INT-ICJ database.
Includes four modules of case law from international courts and dispute settlement bodies: (1) International Courts of General Jurisdiction; (2) International Criminal Law; (3) International Human Rights; and (4) International Law in Domestic Court. For each module you can view a list of the decisions as a while or those decisions coming from a particular jurisdiction or dispute settlement body.
Country Reports
“Country Reports” refers to documents generated by governmental, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations describing the human rights situation in a particular country. Human rights lawyers use these reports in various proceedings as evidence of the conditions in a country. Country Reports may focus on a single issue or summarize a whole range of human rights issues.
Last revised: September 2011