Human Rights Research Guide
Last Updated December 23, 2014
This guide provides an overview of useful sources for research on international human rights law, with an emphasis on free online sources and sources available through Diamond Law Library and other Columbia University libraries.
This is a selective list of sources. For additional research advice, please contact the librarians at the Reference Desk. For directions and reference hours, see the Diamond Law Library homepage.
- 1 Background & Reference Sources
- 2 Human Rights Organizations
- 3 Human Rights Treaties
- 4 Interpretation & Application of International Human Rights Law
- 4.1 UN Human Rights Monitoring Mechanisms
- 4.2 International Court of Justice
- 4.3 International Criminal Court
- 4.4 European Court of Human Rights & Other Council of Europe Bodies
- 4.5 Inter-American System
- 4.6 Truth Commissions and Ad Hoc Tribunals
- 5 How Can I Find Laws Related to Human Rights in a Specific Country?
- 6 How Can I Find Information About the Human Rights Situation in a Specific Country?
- 7 Books
- 8 Journals
- 9 Bibliographies and Research Guides
Background & Reference Sources
This list of background and reference sources focuses on dictionaries, encyclopedias and directories that were published or updated since 2000. To see more of these types of sources available at Diamond Law Library, including older editions, please search on Pegasus for the following Subjects:
- Human rights -- Dictionaries
- Human rights-- Encyclopedias
- International law -- Encyclopedias
- Human rights -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
Most of the background and reference sources in this list are in print format. Databases and other electronic resources are marked [electronic resource].
- International Human Rights in a Nutshell, 4th edition by Thomas Buergenthal, Dinah Shelton & David P. Stewart (West, 2009)
- An excellent compact introduction to the international law of human rights. Includes a table of cases with full citations.
- A Dictionary of Human Rights, 2nd edition by David Robertson (Europa Publications, 2004)
- Professor Robertson describes his book as “a series of small essays,” each one covering a major concept, legal instrument, or organization related to human rights. The book includes a handy appendix that reprints some fundamental human rights texts, including international treaties and national laws from France, Germany, Canada, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Israel, and South Africa.
- Dictionary of International Human Rights Law by Connie de la Vega (Edward Elgar, 2013)
- This book provides one-paragraph definitions of concepts, legal instruments, and organizations related to human rights. The appendix is a list of 259 human rights treaties and other international and national legal instruments; each one has a short description, citation, and URL.
- A Handbook of International Human Rights Terminology, 2nd edition by H. Victor Condé (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
- This book is primarily intended for students who are new to the study of human rights. The dictionary section contains brief explanations of human rights-related concepts, legal instruments, and organizations. Comprehensive appendixes include an appendix on "Official Citations for Human Rights and Related Instruments."
- Historical Dictionary of Human Rights and Humanitarian Organizations, 2nd edition by Robert F. Gorman & Edward S. Mihalkanin (Scarecrow Press, 2007)
- Provides brief descriptions of major organizations (private, governmental, national, and international), people, concepts, treaties, and other legal instruments related to human rights and humanitarian law. Includes a chronology of events and an extensive subject bibliography.
- Lexicon of Human Rights = Les Définitions des Droits de l’Homme by Cédric Viale (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008)
- In most human rights dictionaries, each entry is a definition written by the author(s). However, in this book, each entry is a compilation of direct quotations from treaties and other human rights instruments. Another unique feature of this book is that it provides the same text twice: the first half in English, the second half in French.
- Encyclopedia of Human Rights David P. Forsythe, editor in chief (Oxford University Press, 2009)
- This 5-volume encyclopedia focuses on 1945 to the present (2009), with some coverage of prior developments. It covers concepts, organizations (governmental and non-governmental, global, regional, and national), people, and situations related to human rights. It includes entries on the human rights situation in contemporary as well as historical countries and regions; for example, there are entries on both the Democratic Republic of Congo and on the Belgian Congo. The entries are written by scholars and practitioners from various countries. The last volume includes an extensive index.
- Encyclopedia of Human Rights, 2nd ed. by Edward Lawson (Taylor & Francis, 1996)
- This 1,715-page single-volume compendium covers the years between 1945 and 1996. Published with the cooperation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights / Centre for Human Rights, this encyclopedia relies primarily on the reports of UN institutions such as Special Rapporteurs and human rights treaty-monitoring bodies. It includes entries on people (in particular, Nobel Peace Prize winners), concepts, international organizations (governmental and non-governmental), treaties, and other human rights instruments (with citations to the official sources). Unlike most other dictionaries and encyclopedias, this book also includes entries on the state of human rights in 186 countries and territories. The appendixes contain a chronological list of documents included in this work. A glossary and a subject index are also available.
- An Encyclopedia of Human Rights in the United States, 2nd ed. by H. Victor Condé (Grey House Publishing, 2011)
- Two-volume set of books focused on international human rights as they relate to the United States, from the founding to the present. The table of contents is available on Pegasus. The first part, Terms (270 pages), is an alphabetical dictionary of human rights concepts and organizations. The second part, Primary Documents, reprints 106 treaties, speeches, UN documents, and other materials. The third part, Appendixes, includes various charts, chronologies, and lists of US legislation and cases related to human rights law, among other reference materials. This encyclopedia is intended for the general public, not just lawyers or law students.
- International Encyclopedia of Human Rights: Freedoms, Abuses, and Remedies by Robert L. Maddex (CQ Press, 2000)
- A useful source for beginner researchers looking for brief explanations of key concepts, organizations, international agreements, and other documents significant to the historical development of human rights. Short biographies of major figures are also included.
- Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford University Press, updated periodically) [electronic resource]
- This is the online edition of the Encyclopedia of Public International Law previously published in print. This comprehensive reference work contains articles written by scholars and practitioners dealing with all aspects of public international law, including basic principles, rules, and summaries of important decisions. A useful source for a description and an evaluation of public international law subjects with the relevant legal situations, including many human rights-related topics. Each article is marked with the date it was last updated.
- United Nations – Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) civil society organization database [electronic resource]
- An extensive NGO database that can be searched by various fields, including country and type of organization. Information is available in multiple languages.
- World Directory of Human Rights Research and Training Institutions, 6th edition (UNESCO, 2003), also available as an [electronic resource] through the UNESCO website
- Prepared by the Social and Human Sciences Documentation Centre and the Division of Human Rights of UNESCO this directory provides much more than contact information. The entries are annotated and there are several finding aids including subject and specialist indexes.
- Human Rights Organizations & Periodicals Directory, 13th edition (Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, 2013)
- This directory focuses on organizations and publications in the United States that work on human rights problems in the U.S., although some also work on such issues in other countries. Alphabetical guide with full contact information, geographical index by state, list of internships, periodical index, and subject index are some of the useful features included.
- Dictionary of Human Rights Advocacy Organizations in Africa by Santosh Saha (Greenwood Press, 1999)
- This directory includes governmental and non-governmental organizations. For each organization, there is a brief description of its work and at least one reference. Many entries also mention the organization’s history and reputation. The organizations are listed alphabetically by name, and there is also a country index useful for researchers seeking organizations in a specific nation in Africa.
- National Human Rights Institutions in the Asia Pacific Region by Brian Burdekin & Jason Naum (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2007)
- This source is much more than a directory. It is a collection of select international materials and comparative tables to enable the researcher to compare the established national (i.e. governmental) human rights institutions in the Asia Pacific region. The bulk of the text is dedicated to the relevant legislation of the countries in the region, making this a valuable reference source. One of the authors, Brian Burdekin, previously served as Special Advisor on National Institutions for the United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights.
Handbooks & Other Sources for Practitioners
- There are many handbooks, manuals, and other sources of practical advice for lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police, journalists, teachers, and others whose work involves the application of human rights law.
- Many are available for free online, mainly from inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
- To find these types of sources available in print at Diamond Law Library, please try these advanced searches on Pegasus:
- Subject: Human rights -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
- Subject: human rights AND Keyword: handbook
- Subject: human rights AND Keyword: manual
Human Rights Organizations
Below is a selected list of major organizations that monitor human rights situations around the world and/or contribute to the development of human rights law. To find more, see the directories suggested in this research guide.
Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
- United Nations (UN)
- See Diamond Law Library's United Nations Research Guide and the Directory of United Nations System Organizations. Relevant UN bodies include:
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
- Human Rights Council
- Human rights treaty monitoring bodies See the Treaty Monitoring Bodies section of this research guide
- Special Rapporteurs and other Special Procedures
- International Labour Organization (ILO)
- UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- Council of Europe (CoE)
- See Diamond Law Library's European Human Rights System Research Guide. Relevant CoE bodies include:
- African Union
- See Diamond Law Library's African Human Rights System Research Guide. Relevant AU bodies include:
Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)
Human Rights Treaties
Below are suggestions on where to find treaties and other instruments related to human rights. For information on the status of treaties in the U.S., see the website of the State Department, Office of Treaty Affairs. For background information and additional research advice on treaties, see Diamond Law Library’s Guide to Treaty Research.
Collections of Treaties
There are several general collections of treaties. Subscription-based collections available to Columbia Law School students and faculty include HeinOnline, Westlaw, and Lexis. Free online collections include: the United Nations Treaty Collection; the Congress.gov Treaty Documents website; the Organization of American States' Inter-American Treaties website; and the Council of Europe's Treaty Office website.
Below is a list of specialized collections of treaties and other instruments related to human rights. Some of these collections are in print, and some are online databases, which are marked [electronic resource].
- Human Rights: A Compilation of International Instruments (United Nations, 2002)
- This compilation, prepared by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), includes instruments adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This compilation includes only the text of the instruments, no annotations.
- International Human Rights Instruments: A Compilation of Treaties, Agreements, and Declarations of Especial Interest to the United States by Richard B. Lillich, ed. (Hein, 1990)
- Although this compilation of treaties is no longer up to date, it is still useful for its annotations. This compilation includes: human rights treaties that the U.S. was a party to; treaties that the U.S. had signed but not ratified; treaties that the U.S. had not signed; and other international human rights instruments (e.g. Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Useful annotations include U.S. government action taken in regard to the instrument, a selected bibliography of books and articles related to the instrument, and a list of U.S. federal and state judicial decisions in which the instrument is cited or discussed.
- University of Minnesota Human Rights Library - Human Rights Treaties and Other Instruments [electronic resource]
- This is a great online collection of treaties, organized by subject and by country. Also look at the entire University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, which has over 65,000 documents and counting.
Treaties and other human rights instruments are published in various sources (see The Bluebook, 20th edition, Rule 21.4.5 and Table T4), including:
- UNTS = United Nations Treaty Series, available in print and online through the United Nations Treaty Collection
- ILM = International Legal Materials, available in print and online through HeinOnline. Available in text format on Westlaw and Lexis.
- UST = United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, available in print and online through HeinOnline. Available in text format on Westlaw and Lexis.
- S. Treaty Doc. = Senate Treaty Documents, available online through HeinOnline and the U.S. Government Publishing Office's Federal Digital System (FDsys) Congressional Documents collection.
- OASTS = Organization of American States Treaty Series, available in print
- ETS = European Treaty Series, available in print
- CETS = Council of Europe Treaty Series, available in print
Below is a list of major treaties and other human rights instruments. This list is not exhaustive.
For each treaty or other human rights instrument listed below, we have provided citations to one or more of the sources where it has been published. Wherever possible, we have provided a direct link to text of the document.
Universal (Global) Treaties & Instruments
- Core Human Rights Treaties:
- Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) (1984)
- 1465 UNTS 85
- S. Treaty Doc. No. 100-20 (scroll to page ii after the page loads)
- 23 ILM 1027
- Other Human Rights Treaties & Instruments:
- Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)
- 78 UNTS 277
- 102 Stat 3045 (Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987)
Regional Treaties & Instruments
Interpretation & Application of International Human Rights Law
A variety of institutions interpret and apply international human rights law through monitoring activities, court proceedings, and other adjudicative procedures. Most of these institutions post their recent decisions, reports, and other publications on their websites. Some older materials may be available only in print or microfiche.
You can also find such materials on the websites of human rights organizations (see this research guide’s section on human rights organizations).
UN Human Rights Monitoring Mechanisms
Documents related to UN human rights monitoring mechanisms are available on their websites linked below. You can also do an aggregated search using the Universal Human Rights Index, the charter-based bodies document search, or the treaty bodies document search. For general advice on searching for UN documents, see Diamond Law Library’s Research Guide: The United Nations.
Treaty Monitoring Bodies
- Each of the core international human rights treaties has a corresponding treaty monitoring body (also called a treaty body), a committee of independent experts that monitors implementation of that treaty.
- Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
- Human Rights Committee
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
- Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
- Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
- Committee against Torture
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (1984)
- Committee on the Rights of the Child
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
- Committee on Migrant Workers
- Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990)
- Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)
- Committee on Enforced Disappearances
- International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006)
- Important documents to look for include:
- General Comments interpreting treaty provisions
- Documentation related to the committee’s review of individual states parties’ compliance with the treaty, including state reports, NGO reports, and the committee’s Concluding Observations
- Documentation related to complaints against states parties
Special Rapporteurs & Other Special Procedures
- The Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups, and other special procedures of the Human Rights Council are independent experts that monitor human rights related to a particular country or thematic issue.
Universal Periodic Review
- All member states of the United Nations undergo a Universal Periodic Review of the human rights situation in the state, conducted under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. Documentation related to the UPR includes reports from the state, UN bodies, NGOs, and the Human Rights Council.
International Court of Justice
See Diamond Law Library's International Court of Justice Research Guide.
International Criminal Court
See Diamond Law Library's International Criminal Law Research Guide
European Court of Human Rights & Other Council of Europe Bodies
See Diamond Law Library's European Human Rights System and the European Court of Human Rights Research Guide.
Major bodies that interpret and apply international human rights law (in particular the European Convention on Human Rights and other regional instruments) include:
- European Court of Human Rights
- Commissioner for Human Rights
- European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT)
- European Committee of Social Rights
Major bodies that interpret and apply international human rights law (in particular the American Convention on Human Rights and other regional instruments) include:
Truth Commissions and Ad Hoc Tribunals
Ad hoc tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions have been established in many countries following massive human rights abuses. Amnesty International and the United States Institute of Peace have lists of truth commissions, though they are not comprehensive, as new tribunals and commissions continue to be established.
- The following collections aggregate records from multiple tribunals and commissions:
- United States Institute of Peace, Margarita S. Studemeister Digital Library in International Conflict Management: includes Truth Commissions Digital Collection and Peace Agreements Digital Collection
- Global War Crimes Tribunal Collection (Global Law Association, 1997- )
Individual Tribunals and Commissions
- Many tribunals and commissions, especially those that were established recently, have websites where they post records including founding documents, court/commission decisions, and reports. When viewing websites available in multiple languages, it may be helpful to switch to the vernacular, as some websites have not translated all of their content into English.
- Records of some tribunals and commissions are also available in print and microfiche in Diamond Law Library. You can find them by searching by subject or keyword on Pegasus.
- For information about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), see Diamond Law Library's Research Guide: International Criminal Law.
How Can I Find Laws Related to Human Rights in a Specific Country?
To find the domestic laws of a foreign country, two of the best places to start are research guides about that country and secondary sources like books, journals and human rights reports. Once you have established a basic background, continue your research using foreign law databases.
Foreign Law Research Guides
A good foreign law research guide will briefly describe the legal system in that country, and explain where you can find statutes, cases, regulations, and other sources of law in the vernacular and in English. Research guides are available in print and online, for free and by subscription. You can find foreign law research guides in several ways:
- Use a search engine (like Google) to search for [insert country name] law research guide
- Search on Pegasus for: Subject: legal research AND Keyword: [country name]
- Published by the Hauser Global Law School Program at NYU School of Law, Globalex is an excellent collection of research guides on most countries. It also has comparative law research guides on specific themes. Many of the research guides are authored by local attorneys and law librarians.
- Foreign Law Guide (also known as “Reynolds & Flores”)
- Foreign Law Guide is a set of extensive research guides on almost every country. Although it is commonly referred to as “Reynolds and Flores,” the names of the two original authors, today it is updated by many other authors. Originally, Foreign Law Guide was published in print, but today it is updated only online.
- Diamond Law Library’s list of foreign law research guides, organized by country. This list includes research guides from Globalex and Foreign Law Guide.
Diamond Law Library’s research guides page has several foreign law research guides, including:
- Finding Foreign Law Resources on the Internet
- An Introduction to African Legal Resources
- Links to Sources of Japanese Law
Researchers in the United States may find it challenging to access the laws of some foreign countries for various reasons. For example, the official publication containing the text of the laws may not be available online or in U.S. libraries, or the laws may not be translated into English. Books, journals, law reviews, human rights organization reports, and other secondary sources may help you by providing a description or translation of the laws. See this research guide’s sections on Books and Journals.
Foreign Law Databases
Foreign law databases available to Columbia Law School students include:
- World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII): free online resource that aggregates content from many affiliated regional and national databases.
- Diamond Law Library subscribes to a number of foreign law databases
How Can I Find Information About the Human Rights Situation in a Specific Country?
You can find reporting on human rights violations (or human rights protections) in a particular country through various government, non-governmental organization (NGO), and news sources. If possible, try searching for information in the local language as well as in English.
The resources listed below are good places to start your research:
- Annual reports by the State Department on the human rights situation in every country. The reports are available online for all years, and in print up to 2010 in Diamond Law Library.
- Human Rights Watch regularly publishes reports and other advocacy material on specific human rights issues in specific countries. It also produces an annual review of human rights in most countries, called "World Report." You can search by country and issue on Human Rights Watch's website.
- Amnesty International publishes an annual human rights report ("State of the World") every spring, as well as reports, open letters, and other advocacy material throughout the year. You can search by country and issue on its website.
- Database managed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), containing a vast repository of documents related to human rights in all countries. It includes not only UN documents, but also documents by a variety of other organizations, governments, and individuals. You can search by country or keyword.
- UN human rights monitoring mechanisms
- You can do an aggregated search of UN human rights monitoring mechanisms' findings on a particular country using the Universal Human Rights Index, the charter-based bodies document search, or the treaty bodies document search. See this research guide's section on UN Human Rights Monitoring Mechanisms.
To find books in the Columbia University library system, use the online library catalogs. As human rights is an interdisciplinary topic, it is a good idea to search in multiple libraries at Columbia. In each library catalog, you can search by various fields including subject, title, author, and keyword. You can do a combined search of multiple fields by using advanced search.
- Law school library (Diamond Law Library) catalog
- Suggested subject searches on Pegasus:
- CLIO includes several Columbia libraries, including the law school library (Diamond Law Library), the main university library (Butler Library), and the libraries of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), business school, journalism school, and social work school.
- Columbia University human rights research guides:
- School of International and Public Affairs, Lehman Library - Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs: Information Resources
- Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research - Human Rights Research Guide
- Special collections in the Columbia University Libraries include:
- Suggested subject searches on CLIO:
- human rights
- human rights [insert country name]
- Teacher’s College library catalog
- Suggested subject searches on EDUCAT:
To find books in libraries outside of Columbia, use WorldCat. Columbia Law School students who wish to borrow books from outside of Columbia through inter-library loan (ILL) must consult the librarians at the reference desk.
If you need advice on searching for books, contact the librarians at the reference desk. For reference desk hours, see the Diamond Law Library homepage.
Indexes can help you broaden the scope of your search beyond what is covered in the major full-text databases like Westlaw, Lexis, and HeinOnline Law Journal Library. Indexes may cover more journals, over a more extended period of time. Indexes also provide more sophisticated search functions, such as searching by subject, country of publication, and language. For international human rights law research, the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals may be especially helpful because it covers hundreds of journals published worldwide in multiple languages. See a list of indexes available through Diamond Law Library. As human rights is an interdisciplinary topic, social science and political science indexes such as PAIS International may be useful as well.
Selective List of Human Rights Journals
Note that some of these journals, especially those published outside of the U.S., are not available on Westlaw, Lexis, and/or HeinOnline.
- African Human Rights Law Journal (Lansdowne, South Africa: Juta Law (2001-2012); Pretoria, South Africa: Pretoria University Law Press (2013- ))
- Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law (The Hague; Boston: Kluwer Law International)
- Columbia Human Rights Law Review
- Available in print and on HeinOnline, Westlaw and Lexis. Articles from recent years are available on the Columbia Human Rights Law Review website.
- European Human Rights Law Review (London : Sweet & Maxwell)
- Available in print
- Harvard Human Rights Journal
- Available in print and on HeinOnline, Westlaw and Lexis. Articles from recent years are available on the Harvard Human Rights Journal website.
- Human Rights: a Quarterly Review of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
- Available in print.
- Human Rights Law Journal: HRLJ
- Available in print.
- Human Rights Quarterly (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press)
- Journal of Human Rights (London: Carfax Publishing)
- Available in print
- The International Journal of Human Rights (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd)
- Available in print.
- International Journal on Minority and Group Rights (The Hague; Boston: Kluwer Law International)
- Muslim World Journal of Human Rights (De Gruyter)
- Available through De Gruyter website.
- Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal
- Available in print and on HeinOnline, Westlaw and Lexis. Older articles are available on the Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal website.
Bibliographies and Research Guides
There are many free online research guides related to human rights. Below are some suggestions:
- University of Minnesota Human Rights Library - list of Bibliographies and Guides
- American Society of International Law - the Electronic Resource Guide has several relevant chapters, including International Human Rights by Marci Hoffman
- American Society of International Law - the Electronic Information System for International Law covers several relevant topics, including International Human Rights
- University of California, Berkeley Law Library - International Human Rights Law
- Georgetown Law Library - Human Rights Law Research Guide
- GlobaLex (published by NYU School of Law) - collection of research guides includes a general International Human Rights Research Guide by Grace M. Mills and a number of research guides on more specialized human rights-related topics
- United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld Library - UN Documentation: Human Rights
- Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, Lehman Library - Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs: Information Resources
- Columbia University, Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research - Human Rights Research Guide