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A Basic Guide to International Environmental Legal Research

An overview of resources for researching international environmental law.

United Nations

Structure of the UN 

The following chart shows the structure of the UN and some of the related sources of environmental law. The chart is described below.

UN Organization Hierarchy


The UN has six principal organs, five of which are depicted in the chart:

  1. the Security Council
  2. the General Assembly
  3. the Economic and Social Council
  4. the Trusteeship Council; (not depticted)
  5. the UN Secretariat
  6. the International Court of Justice

UN General Assembly Programs & Funds

Under the General Assembly, those programs and funds that encompass environmental concerns are:

UN Economic and Social Council

Under the Economic and Social Council, you will find:

UN Secretariat

Under the Secretariat you can find environmental related law and policy within:

  • United Nations Office of Legal Affairs (OLA)
    • Treaty Section
      • Treaty Collection
  • Department of Public Information (now known as the Department of Global Communications)
    • Library
      • Official Document System (ODS)

UN International Court of Justice

Finding UN Documents

Use the UN Databases page to find UN Documents. The most important tools to use for finding UN documents are:

UN Official Document System

The Official Document System (ODS) the largest system for acquiring UN documents. It contains all kinds of official UN documentation from 1993 to the present including the resolutions of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, and Trusteeship Council from 1946 onwards.   The UN is gradually adding documents older than 1993 to the database.  It does not, however, contain press releases, sales publications, the United Nations Treaty Series or information brochures issued by the Department of Public Information.

The following image is a screen shot of the ODS's search template.  symbol, words in the title, date of publication, full text, subject, date of release, the session or year, language, and type of full text search.  The symbols are like call numbers for UN documents.  This is an exact search.  Words in the title is a keyword search.  You don't have to know the whole correct title, but you do have to know at least one exact word that is in the title.  The date of publication is the date the document was printed and disseminated.  The full text search allows you to search the body of the documents.  You can use the following operators to construct a full text search:

  • And (narrows search)
  • Or (expands search)
  • And Not (excludes terms following)
  • Sentence (proximity)
  • Truncate terms with *

You can truncate on the right, left, both ends or not at all.  The languages are only the six official languages of the UN.  The Type of full text search allows you to use the same search algorithms as you will find on Google.

screenshot of ODS search page

UN Treaty Collection

The UN Treaty Collection includes:

  1. All multilateral treaties deposited with the Secretary- General of the United Nations (1946-present) and those formerly deposited with the League of Nations (1920-1946) - their latest status and a link to the full texts.
  2. Bilateral and multilateral treaties registered with and published by the United Nations Secretariat in accordance with Article 102 up to a certain date - Detailed treaty references and full texts in all authentic language(s).

If there are several different copies of a treaty, the one from this collection is the one that should be cited.

Other UN Resources

Other IGOs

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