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FCIL Newsletter/February 1998
v.12, no.2


Researching International Law Electronically
Jill McC. Watson, Director of Library and Information Services, The American Society of International Law

International law on the web is exploding. Of course, this is true of almost any subject area, but it is a particularly welcome development in this one. While research in U.S. law is distinguished by a huge body of highly organized and accessible materials, international law has long posed a challenge to scholars, practitioners, diplomats and others.

The library I work in -- at the American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C. -- has always been a great place to research this diffuse and scattered subject, largely because a wide variety of highly specialized materials are available in one small place. This has now changed dramatically.

Thanks to the activities of international organizations and major universities around the world, the researcher now is offered an astronomically wider variety of those highly specialized materials, available in an even smaller place (the screen of the computer). All you have to do is understand what it is and where to find it!

In the vast, as yet unorganized world of the World Wide Web this can be harder than the innocent librarian or researcher might imagine.

The ASIL Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law

With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the American Society of International Law conceived of the idea of building an electronic guide to these resources that were popping up in all formats - on commercial services such as Lexis and Westlaw, on CD-ROMs, and increasingly (this was in 1995) on something called the Web.

The plan was that in organized chapters on selected subjects, authors would not only explain the nature of researching their particular area, but also offer descriptions and critiques of available electronic formats. Finally, the Guide would offer live links to sites on the Internet that were particularly useful. These would be updated on a regular basis, both to insure the viability of the links and to review the content and currency of the chapters.

The Guide is being built gradually (it has four chapters so far), but it already serves as a useful tool in demonstrating in an organized fashion the quantity of international law information becoming available on the web.

The four initial chapters of the Guide are:

  • Human Rights (Marci Hoffman, University of Minnesota Law School)
  • Treaties (Jill McC. Watson, ASIL)
  • The United Nations (Paul Zarins, Stanford University Libraries)
  • Lists, Newsgroups and Other Networks (Lyonette Louis-Jacques, University of Chicago Law School)

Two new chapters are in preparation - on International Criminal Law (Gail Partin, Dickinson School of Law) and on International Environmental Law (Anne Burnett, University of Georgia School of Law) - and will be ready in early 1998. I will very briefly describe the United Nations and Human Rights sections as examples of how the ASIL Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law can help identify and locate these materials in the emerging electronic resources world.

The United Nations

The United Nations has done a splendid job of bringing its materials online. It started early and has pushed hard to keep up the pace. One of the most welcome accomplishments is that of the Office of Legal Affairs in putting on the Internet the 30,000 treaties already published in the 1400+ volumes of the United Nations Treaty Series. So far, these are free to all, but the UN has warned its users that soon there will be a fee for access, unfortunately.

In the United Nations Chapter of the ASIL Guide, Paul Zarins provides information on what you can expect to find at the UN site and guidance on how to navigate it. There are links not only to the main UN Home Page, but also to UNCITRAL and UNHCR, to related organizations such as ACUNS and UNA-USA, to other research guides on the UN, and to Model UN web sites, as well as hints on how to research UN Resolutions and more.

Human Rights

Marci Hoffman begins her chapter by briefly outlining the history of human rights law and its foundations in the UN Charter, linking the user to the relevant articles of the Charter as well as to the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Under "Where to Start," she lists (and links to) bibliographic databases and online research guides to print material, as well as periodical indexes.

Under "Primary Sources," links are provided to compilations of human rights documents from a variety of sources - from the UN to the University of Minnesota. Other international organizations such as the Council of Europe, the OAS, the OAU and the OSCE are covered in detail.

A section is devoted to "Humanitarian Law," linking the researcher to the ICRC and other humanitarian sites. The ICRC section is illustrative of the fact that these sites will not only give you the full text of international law instruments, such as the Geneva Conventions, but also much, much more such as addresses and telephone numbers of tracing offices and Red Cross operations by region around the world, not to mention photographs and a research guide to international humanitarian law.

The Human Rights Chapter of the Guide goes on for a total of 23 pages with links and tips on useful sites created by NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Internet, as well as the more well-regarded university-sponsored sites such as the UN Scholar's Workstation at Yale and DIANA, a network of online human rights resources.

Where the Guide Is

The Guide is located on ASIL's web site at http://www.asil.org/resource/Home.htm. It is updated about every six months, both to correct changes in links and URLs and to add new developments in the subject covered. Knowing that many international law researchers do not have ready access to the Internet but are nonetheless eager to learn of and understand developments in the electronic information world, ASIL has published a paper version of the Guide. Entitled ASIL Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law, it is No. 13 (January, 1998) of the series ASIL Bulletin and can be purchased from ASIL.


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