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Pritzker Legal Research Center

International Legal Research Guide

An overview of international law and where to begin research


An intergovernmental organization (IGO) is an entity established by a treaty or agreement between member states that agree to work together on projects or issues of common interest. IGOs can be global (such as the United Nations), regional (such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), or subject-specific (such as the European Free Trade Association).

United Nations

The League of Nations was the predecessor of the UN from 1912-1956. The League of Nations was founded at the end of World War I as an amicable way for Europe to resolve international disputes. Although proposed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. controversially was never a member of the League. The League was able to address some big ideas, such as human trafficking global health, and the treatment of prisoners of war, but ultimately was not able to address to bring about disarmament or prevent the aggression of the Axis powers, so World War II began in 1939. 

The United Nations was created in 1946, during the aftermath of World War II and with the dissolution of the League of Nations. Beginning with 51 members, its goal was the same as the League: to prevent armed conflict as a means to settle disputes. The UN now has 193 member states. The UN is composed of five main bodies (General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Secretariat, and Trusteeship Council), in addition to the International Court of Justice.

Finding UN Documents:

UN documents are available through electronic databases and on the websites of UN bodies. Many older UN documents have not yet been digitized. The PLRC has a collection of UN documents and publications in the Government Documents collection. 

  • HeinOnline United Nations Law Collection: contains full-text coverage of UN publications, secondary sources, and resources on the International Court of Justice and the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL)
  • Official Documents System (ODS) of the United Nations: searchable database of full-text PDF documents, including all UN documents from 1993, resolutions of the principal organs from 1946, Security Council plenary documents from 1946, supplements to the General Assembly Official Records from 1946, and General Assembly plenary meeting records from 1946

For a comprehensive overview of UN documentation and how to find UN documents, please see the UN Documentation Research Guide.

Organization of American States (OAS)

The Organization of American States (OAS) began with a meeting in 1889 to establish the International Union of American Republics, making it the oldest regional organization. In 1948, the OAS was established with the signing of the Charter of the OAS. The OAS was established to establish "peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence" among its members from the Carribean, North, Central, and South America. The OAS is composed of a number of organs, including the General Assembly and the General Secretariat. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights were created under the American Convention on Human Rights. There are 35 member states of the OAS. 

Finding OAS Documents:

To find OAS documents, click on the "Documents" tab on the OAS website. This section includes the founding Charter, Inter-American Democratic Charter, declarations and resolutions, treaties and agreements, and annual reports of the Secretary General. 

Inter-American Commission documents, including cases, reports, and precautionary measures, are available on its website. Inter-American Court documents are found on the court's website under the "About-Us" and "Jurisprudence" tabs. 

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Today, ASEAN has ten Southeast Asian countries as members. The purpose of this regional organization is to promote peace as well as political and economic cooperation in the region. 

Finding ASEAN Documents: 

ASEAN documents are available on its website, including the ASEAN Charter and basic documents of the ASEAN Secretariat. Documents from the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights can be found on its website. An ASEAN court has not yet been established.

The African Union

The OAU is a regional IGO established in the aftermath of colonialism and apartheid in Africa. Its goal was to create a coalition to help individual African states develop and thrive as they moved forward in self-governance.

The African Union (AU) is the regional IGO that replaced the OAU. The AU was established with the understanding that the world was changing and that there was a need for a regional organization to address these rapidly changing needs. This organization would build upon the mission of the OAU and would work to empower African nations in the face of the changing global economy while addressing "the multifaceted social, economic and political problems facing the continent."

The AU was established in 1999 by the Sirte Declaration. The organs of the AU include the Assembly, the Executive Council, the Pan-African Parliament, the AU Secretariat, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the African Court on Human Peoples' Rights. There are 54 members of the AU.

Finding AU Documents: 

You can find a variety of AU documents on the homepage of the website, using the "Key Documents" tab and the "Resources" tabs. In addition, you can find AU documentation in the African Law Library.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe (COE) is a regional IGO that focuses on democracy, the rule of law, and the spread of human rights in Europe. The COE was founded in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II. There are 47 member states in the COE. 

The Council of Europe was founded under the Statute of the Council of Europe. The COE's Human Rights convention is called the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The main organs of the COE include: the Secretary General, who leads and directs the COE; the Committee of Ministers, which is the decision-making body; the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), which elects the secretary General, the Human Rights Commissioner, and ECHR judges; Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which works to strengthen democracy in European cities and regions; the Commissioner for Human Rights; and, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Finding COE Documents: 

Determining how to locate COE documents depends on what you are looking for. Since one of the principles of the COE is openness, there is a paper trail for nearly every action taken by this IGO. Just about each part of the COE has its own website, which would be the best place to begin searching for its documents. COE treaties can be found on the Treaty Office home page.

The European Court of Human Rights has a number of recent documents directly available on its home page, under the various tabs (The Courts, Caselaw, Press, etc.), and searchable in its case law database HUDOC.

The European Union

The European Union (EU) is a supranational regional IGO that replaced the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC). The ECSC was established by 1950 to unite European countries and, hopefully, secure peace. The purpose of the organization was to eventually create a common market to thwart another war. Members of the ECSC--especially France and Germany--were expected to submit their production of steel and coal to an outside authority who would monitor its production, and thereby prevent the possibility of producing weapons of war.

The EEC was established in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The EEC's purpose was an extension of the ECSC, to create an economic coalition or a "common market". The hope was that in creating an economic community, the six countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) would become interdependent upon each other and therefore, less likely to be in conflict. The EU came into existence in 1993, as a result of the Treaty on European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty. 

The EU is based on the rule of law: "Every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU member countries." Some element of EU law, are directly applicable in the laws of the member states. Other elements require each individual country to modify its internal laws to comply with EU law.

The EU is composed of numerous institutions and bodies. The main lawmaking institutions of the EU are:

  • The European Commission (Executive Branch, with its Directorate Generals this is similar to the U.S. President and its cabinets): Initiates, promotes, and enforces legislation. The Commission is the "Guardian of the treaties."
  • The European Council (Executive Branch): Heads of government of the member states. They set the agenda and the broad policy lines for the entirety of the EU.
  • European Parliament (Legislative Branch, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives): Law-making body elected every five (5) years.
  • The Council of the European Union (CEU) (Legislative Branch, Similar to the U.S. Senate): Decision-making body at the ministerial level that directly represents each individual country in legislation. Also, monitors the work of the Commission, to protect the interests of the individual member states.
  • The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (Judicial Branch) Sitting at the apex of the judicial architecture of the EU, it rules on the interpretation and validity of EU law on infringements of EU law by member states and on judicial review of EU action.

The CJEU interprets and enforces the law, annuls any legal acts of the EU that violate its treaties (annulments), makes sure that the EU Parliament, Council, and Commission follow through on their decisions, and hears damages claims against EU institutions on behalf of individuals and companies harmed by EU action or inaction. The CJEU is composed of two courts:

Finding EU Documents:

  • Europa, the website for the EU is a good starting point for EU information and documents. Clicking on the tabs at the top and the hyperlinks on the page will lead to the resource.
  • A number of EU laws and documents can be found on the EU's legal website EUR-Lex. The information is sorted under individual tabs (Official Journal, EU Law and Related Documents, etc.). One can use CELEX numbers within EUR-Lex for more precise searches of case-law and legislative history.
  • Curia, the website for the Court of Justice for the European Union, is a good place to search for court decisions.
  • Each EU institution has its own website, which would be the best starting place for its documents.