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International Human Rights Law: A Pathfinder

Updated By

Renee Y. Rastorfer
Head of Research Services

July 2013







WILDPAC - Treatises








International human rights law is primarily concerned with protecting the internationally-guaranteed inherent rights of all people. Organizations working in this area of law promote these rights, and deal with violations of them. Modern international human rights law dates from World War II and its aftermath, but an understanding of earlier human rights considerations is important to grasp the structure of organizations and the international legal system.


Prior to the twentieth century, individual people had no internationally enforceable rights – only states had rights. This led to the conclusion that outsiders had only limited rights to interfere with a government’s treatment of its citizens. One of these rights was the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which authorized outside intervention when citizens were being treated so brutally as to “shock the conscience” of the international community. This traditional doctrine has informed the modern international community’s approach to international tribunals. Another situation which can lead to intervention is the signing of a treaty, in which a state agrees to have the subject matter of the treaty internationally regulated. Transgressions by a state against the citizens of another state were considered to be transgressions against the other state itself; this left stateless persons without remedy.


The United Nations Charter established the legal foundation for modern human rights law. The specific concerns included in that document are “international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character” and “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.” By ratifying this document most states have internationalized their domestic human rights concerns. Human rights law now recognizes inherent enforceable rights held by all people. Additionally, individual actors are now being held responsible for their violations of human rights laws, rather than only governments.


Human rights are safeguarded by a spectrum of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). These organizations promulgate treaties, conventions and charters, protecting various rights of people in signatory countries. The most widely recognized of these organizations is the United Nations (UN). Various agencies and branches of the UN focus on specific human rights concerns. Regional IGOs with similar efforts include the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These organizations set standards for state treatment of nationals through international agreements, and implicitly impose duties upon member states to act in accordance with those agreements. International courts enforce these agreements and duties. International tribunals and the International Criminal Court serve this function, in addition to the following regional courts: the European Court of Justice, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human Rights. Jurisdiction in these courts is a complicated matter, which involves the willingness of the states in question to be governed by the courts.


A wide variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also work to protect and to promote human rights worldwide. Some organizations have a very limited scope of activity and interest, while others are more comprehensive. These organizations make findings of fact concerning actual conditions in various regions, and often provide relief and other assistance to suffering people.


Many information sources are important in international human rights research. This area of law depends very heavily on web resources and periodicals. Topical treatises and research guides can provide valuable background on a particular area of human rights concerns. Treaties and other international agreements are vital; identifying each country’s status with regard to an agreement is a key step. Decisions of international courts may be useful as well. Reports detailing conditions in the countries involved are also useful.


Identifying the issues at hand and the states involved is a necessary first step in researching a human rights issue. From there, determine whether any IGOs may govern this issue for these states. Any treaties or international agreements which speak to these states for the issues involved must be identified and analyzed. Background information and current reports may illuminate the situation and identify related concerns. In addition to these steps, useful documents may also identify other important materials, in the form of published material, documents, or decisions.


The process of international human rights research bears many similarities to more general international law research. The Law Library’s International Law Pathfinder details sources of international law, and where those sources are located within the Law Library. Much of the human rights material is located on the third floor of the Law Library, and in the Reserve Collection behind the Circulation Desk. Most of these materials are grouped around the call numbers K3200. The sources of international law, including treaties and rules governing intergovernmental organizations, are shelved in the KZ call numbers.


The interdisciplinary area of human rights is ever expanding, and materials are added and updated at an amazing rate. Internet research guides can be an excellent way to begin your research in this field.

University of Minnesota Human Rights Library Biographies and Guides
This is a comprehensive website that contains a good collection of links to bibliographies and guides on the topic of human rights.

Electronic Researchc Guide - An ASIL Information Resoruce (e-RG)
The American Society of International Law (ASIL) has compiled an excellent resource on the topic of international human rights law. It identifies a comprehensive collection of websites for international law researchers. Of particular interest are the sections on the Compilation of Human Rights Instruments and on the Status of Human Rights Instruments.

Georgetown University Law Library: Human Rights Law Research Guide
This web site provides a well organized research guide to the primary and important secondary sources in human rights research.

Journal articles are an excellent source for information about human rights. They are also useful for locating citations to treaties, cases, and other documents. Articles about human rights topics may appear in any of hundreds of U.S., foreign and international journals. In order to find articles on a specific topic, consult a periodical index. The nature of human rights and the issues involved is such that relevant articles may be contained in a wide range of journals from other disciplines. The sources listed below will be helpful in your search.

Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals
This index provides access to articles and book reviews appearing in approximately 520 legal journals published worldwide. It provides in-depth coverage of public and private international law, comparative and foreign law, and the law of all jurisdictions other than the United States, the U.K., Canada, and Australia. Print coverage begins in 1977. This set is shelved on the Index Table in the main Reading Room. This source is also available via the Library’s databases webpage from 1985.

Legal Resource Index
This index contains references to articles from more than 850 journals, including law reviews, bar association journals, and legal newspapers. Coverage begins with 1980. This source is available via Westlaw.

Index to Legal Periodicals and Books
This index provides citations to articles from over 500 legal periodicals, including law reviews, bar association journals, university publications, yearbooks, institutes, bar association organs, law reviews, and government publications. Print coverage begins in 1908 and the set is shelved on the Index Table in the Reading Room. The Index to Legal Periodicals is available on Westlaw beginning in 1981, and on LexisNexis beginning in 1978. This source is also available via the Library’s Databases webpage from 1981; users may also select “Legal Periodicals Retrospective” from this source to access articles from 1918-1981.


As mentioned earlier, periodicals are an excellent source for information about human rights and are useful for locating citations to treaties, cases and other documents. Many articles in general law reviews and legal periodicals have been written on the topic of human rights. Check the principal periodical indexes discussed above, or search “Journals and Law Reviews Combined” on Westlaw, or “U.S. Law Reviews and Journals Combined” on Lexis for full text materials from selected law reviews. Coverage varies by publication, but generally begins in the 1990s.

The Law Library has numerous periodicals on international human rights law.
Below is a list of several of the individual journals the Library subscribes to, which report on human rights.

The Amnesty International Report. 1989-.
Buffalo Human Rights Law Review. 1998-. (Also available on Westlaw beginning with 1994, and on LexisNexis beginning with Winter 1995/96.)
Global Journal on Human Rights Law. 1996-.
Harvard Human Rights Journal. 1990-. (Also available on Westlaw, selected coverage beginning 1989, and full coverage beginning 1994; on LexisNexis beginning with 1993.)
Human Rights Brief. 2000-. (Also available on Westlaw beginning with 2000; on LexisNexis beginning 1999.)
Human Rights Law Review. 2001-.
Human Rights Quarterly. 1993-. (Also available on Westlaw beginning with 1987.)
Human Rights Review. 2000-.
Human Rights Watch World Report. 1991-.
International Human Rights Reports. 1994-.
International Journal of Human Rights. 1997-.

To find the titles of other periodicals on this subject, search WILDPAC with subject heading “human rights periodicals.”

WILDPAC - Treatises

Our catalog, WILDPAC, is an excellent resource to locate treatises on human rights. However, remember that because of the speed at which new materials are added and updated in this discipline, new developments in some areas are likely to have far outpaced the content of any printed book. The most current sources for much human rights material – documents, treaties, country reports, etc. – are, not surprisingly, located on the web.

To locate available treatises on the topic of human rights generally (when you do not have a specific title) try searching by keyword, such as “human rights.” Note that you must use quotation marks to search multiple words as one phrase. The keyword search “human rights” will locate a long list of results. As human rights is an interdisciplinary field, you may want to focus on the more specific topic at hand by searching keywords, such as “genital mutilation,” torture, “human experimentation,” “forced displacement,” etc. Once you find relevant titles, peruse the subject headings used in these records and then try a subject search also.

Some of the subject headings used in WILDPAC for the area of human rights are listed below:

Civil rights (country or region)
(group) civil rights
Human rights (country or region)
Women legal status, laws, etc.
Women’s rights
Married women legal status, laws, etc. (country)
Children (International law)
Children’s rights

Some good introductory materials on the subject of human rights include:

Brownlie's Documents on Human Rights (Ian Brownlie & Guy S. Goodwin-Gill eds., 6th ed., Oxford University Press 2010) K3238 .A1 B76 2010.

Thomas Buergenthal, International Human Rights in a Nutshell (4th ed., West Group 2009) Reserve K3240.4 .B84 2009.

Scott N. Carlson, Practical Guide to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Transnational Publishers 2003) K3238.3 1966 .C37 2003.

Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (2d ed., Cornell University Press 2003) K3240.4 .D66 2003.

Hurst Hannum, Guide to International Human Rights Practice (4th ed., Transnational 2004) K3240.4 .G94 2004.

Henry J. Steiner, International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals: Text and Material (3d ed., Oxford University Press 2007) K3240.3 .S74 2007.

David Weissbrodt & Connie de la Vega, International Human Rights Law: an Introduction (University of Pennsylvania Press 2007). K3240 .W45 2007.

All of these books are located on the third floor.


United States government publications are primarily annual reports, studies, and statistics from the various departments and agencies of the government. Some of these materials are cataloged and shelved along with the Library’s regular classified collection on the 3rd floor, some are shelved in the government documents collection on the 2nd floor, and some are only available via the Internet, such as the Human Rights Reports put out annually by the State Department. Searching WILDPAC will find any government publication that the Library owns.

To find all recent government publications related to human rights, use the Monthly Catalog of Government Publications. This source provides an index to print and electronic publications created by Federal agencies since 1994. When available, links are provided to the full-text of these publications. New records are added daily.


It can be helpful when researching such a cutting edge topic as human rights to include national newspapers in your search strategy. For example, The New York Times may have a thorough article discussing a relevant human rights issue. Westlaw: (NYT) coverage from June 1980 to the present in full-text. The New York Times is also available on LexisNexis, with coverage also starting from June 1, 1980 to the present.
You may do a more general news search on Westlaw: ALLNEWS, which contains newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters, government press releases, and transcripts of television and radio shows and congressional testimony. Coverage varies by source.
United Nations Treaty Series
The United Nations Treaty Series contains the texts of over 150,000 bilateral and multilateral treaties and subsequent actions in their original language(s), along with a translation into English and French, as appropriate.
Aside from the news articles discussed above, the most useful databases on LexisNexis will probably be the law review and journals. These full text databases are an excellent source for both analysis and citations. To easily locate materials in the area of Human Rights, select Legal>Area of Law-By Topic>International Law. This collection of materials provides you with a wide variety of international materials, including cases, treaties, and journal articles, etc.
The law reviews and journals will most likely be the most useful sources here. To easily locate materials in the area of Human Rights, select All Databases>Topical Materials by Area of Practice>International Law. This collection of materials provides you with a wide variety of international materials, including law reviews, legal texts and periodicals; international agreements and treaties, and news, etc.

The number of websites that deal with human rights are staggering. Here are but a few of the sites that may prove to be most beneficial for your research:

These sites provide a plethora of categorized links to topical sites and human rights organizations.
University of Minnesota Human Rights Library
Project Diana
EISIL: International Human Rights

Governments & Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
These organizations have legal status as state governments, or groups of governments. Many of these organizations have subsidiary groups.
U.S. State Department
Organization of American States
European Court of Human Rights
United Nations
International Court of Justice

Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
These non-governmental organizations have assumed the responsibility for promoting human rights.
Human Rights Watch

Amnesty International
American Civil Liberties Union

These sites maintain information regarding international treaties.
United Nations Treaty Collection
UN Human Rights Treaties

Topical Sites
Each of these sites promotes human rights within a narrow zone of interest. Some sites cross over between areas of interest.
Simon Wiesenthal Center
International Committee of the Red Cross

Hunger/Poverty/Economic Justice
The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education
Oxfam International

Racism/Sexual Orientation/Gender Discrimination
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Tebtebba Foundation

U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Center for Gender and Refugee Studies
European Council on Refugees and Exiles
Guide to International Refugee Law Resources on the Web
U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement

Rights of Children
Save the Children

Health Issues
World Health Organization



Librarians are available to help you plan your research strategy and to help you find resources that might be useful in your project. Come by the Reference Desk, email us, chat, or call the Reference Desk at 413-782-1458. There is also a Reference Request Form on the Law Library’s homepage.

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