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Legal Research Without Official Diplomatic Relations: Venezuela, Iran and North Korea

Once a country has been officially declared as sanctioned, trying to locate, evaluate and access reliable sources of information becomes a struggle. Depending on the levels of sanctions enacted, research of all kinds can be severely curtailed or completely cut. This lack of most, if not all official channels of communication has a severe impact when you are trying to secure pivotal materials or sources, either physical or online; accessing websites and evaluating online information; and contacting vendors, universities, experts, research centers based in these countries.

When it comes to legal research, these impediments and challenges are maximized regardless of how much information is freely available online. Legal information is a prime target for collateral damage when it comes to sanctions. Trying to locate and access legal information from a jurisdiction with strained or no official diplomatic relations may be perceived as an intrusion or an attempt to initiate legal procedures against citizens from that particular country. Beyond threatening perceptions or misconstrued intentions, any attempt to conduct legal research through traditional channels becomes a challenge, at times an insurmountable one depending on the kind of information needed. The risks and potential threats to both the person searching the information and those handing out the information are essential points to be taken into consideration.

In this post, I have chosen to focus on three of the four countries the United States has no official diplomatic relations with, namely Venezuela, Iran and North Korea[1]. In the case of Canada, Ottawa has severely limited its contact with North Korea since the UN sanctions in 2006 and as well as on Iran since the same year. In 2017, Canadian sanctions were enacted on Venezuelan assets and individuals under the Special Economic Measures on Venezuela (SOR/2017-205 and SOR/2017-204). I’m also aiming at using the geographical diversity in these three countries to keep in mind other neighboring countries in these regions which have also been sanctioned currently or historically[2]. These countries also offer an opportunity to explore the changing nature of sanctions, current crises and how much official diplomacy or the lack thereof plays a significant impact on legal research. Beyond these specific countries, the tips and techniques which I will mention below may be also applied to other jurisdictions.

Research Through the Venezuela Refugees Crisis

As it has been extensively analyzed and reported, the international crisis surrounding Venezuelan refugees in much of Latin America and the Caribbean has only aggravated with the passing of years. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the region, the humanitarian and political ramifications of this complex situation have only been exacerbated. A significant number of NGOs, civil society groups and international organizations helping and supporting Venezuelan refugees have become important sources of information when it comes to bearing witness to the dramatic and tragic situation the refugees are trying to escape from and the one they find themselves in. Their websites have a significant amount of information on where and how to locate primary and secondary sources from both Venezuela as well as the host countries, and firsthand accounts of the crisis. The Venezuelan refugee crisis presents a perfect example on how a crisis can help secure important and trustworthy sources of information for current and future research.

If you are not familiar with local organizations or hesitant about your Spanish skills, I’d recommend beginning your research at the international level with Response for Venezuelans (R4V), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). R4V is a particularly useful source of information when it comes to summary reports on how the situation began, the international response and how it’s still evolving. Besides written reports, they also have a significant amount of data and visualization graphics coming from both UN agencies and local organizations. If this information is somewhat overwhelming, I’d recommend checking the UNHCR and IOM websites for more specific information as well as personal stories from the refugees themselves.

Iran as a Member of International Organizations

In the case of Iran, and to some extent the entire Middle East, one source often overlooked is international organizations. From our Western standpoint, Iran might seem isolated. However, the reality is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is active in several international organizations. This fact can prove to be essential when doing research. As they do for most member countries, these international organizations have a significant amount of information when it comes to when the country ascended to the organization, local legislation or relevant data concerning the topic at hand, and reports on how the situation continues to evolve. All these documents will shed some light on your research. For example, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) all have summary reports, country data and analysis on Iran.

As you can probably guess by now, this information is only useful if your research pertains to these topics. In those cases, I’d try to contact the country or region expert assigned in each of these international organizations. They’re usually fluent in local vernaculars and have a wealth of knowledge and networks which can help you further your research in other topics of interest.

North Korean Sources from the Outside

In the case of such a closed off country such as North Korea, your best strategy might be the numerous research centers focusing on the country from the outside. The Wilson Center in Washington, DC has a well-known and highly reputable program called the North Korea International Documentation Project. This program aims to provide a wealth of information coming from multiple trustworthy sources historical and current events pertaining to both local North Korean issues and how it might link to international trends. Also based in Washington, DC, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has an initiative called the Korea Chair. This initiative aims to highlight and analyze issues from the entire Korean peninsula through a series of events and reports compiled by experts in the region. Another noteworthy source is the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK). The NCNK is a great source if you are looking for a list of experts on North Korea based internationally. The committee also features on its website a database of primary and secondary sources as well as a calendar of relevant events and links to centers dedicated to the study of North Korea and the Korean peninsula all over the world.

When locating relevant sources, you should always look at academic journals, legal or not. The North Korea Review from the University of Detroit Mercy seems to be the only journal solely dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of North Korea. However, these days there is a wealth of articles on North Korea in numerous journals. If you are looking for law articles in particular, I’d highly recommend you to consult the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals hosted in HeinOnline for further research.

Evidently, these strategies are not the only ones you should employ. Furthermore, a combination of several strategies as well as a good dose of imagination will go a long way to find the material or information you are looking for. There are other free sources of information which are incredibly useful not only for these countries but other places which might prove to be “difficult” to research. They are the following:

Let’s be honest, this is the kind of information you don’t need until you desperately need it, and there is no one around to help you. I would love to hear from others with experience on researching these countries and learn about other sources, legal or not. Please feel free to email me or write your recommendations on the comments. Perhaps our collective knowledge may help ease the tremendous challenges that may arise when researching without official diplomatic relations.

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[1] Bhutan is the fourth. Source: https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-bhutan/

[2] Americas (Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua); Middle East (Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan); East Asia (North Korea, China).

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