The State of Digitization of United Nations Documents

Almost two decades have passed since the United Nations began digitizing its documents. The UN started the Official Document System (ODS) as a pilot project in 1992, and officially launched it in 1993. Since then, there has been an explosion of UN documents and publications available in electronic format from a variety of sources, for free and via subscription. I recently checked the current status of UN documentation online, and here’s what I found. And what I expected to find, and didn’t. And some worrisome developments.

Discovery Tools

UNBISnet, the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library bibliographic information system, indexes e-versions of UN documents and is a great starting point for finding them as you can search by the traditional library catalog access points and UN document symbol. AccessUN is a subscription database that indexes UN documents, and includes external links to free e-versions. PDFs of some UN documents are Google-able, and Bing-able. You can sometimes find random volumes from sets such as the Yearbook of the International Law Commission digitized in Google Books.

Official Document System of the United Nations (ODS)

The ODS database includes formally-published UN parliamentary documents from 1993 to date, and all UN resolutions (from the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and Trusteeship Council) back to 1946 in PDF format. The majority of the documents can be found in six languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. For the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), documents related to its drafting history from 1946-1948, the “travaux préparatoires”, were added to the ODS.

The ODS database does not include UN publications and sales documents, the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS), press releases, public information materials, and “non-papers”. The ODS has multiple search interfaces and includes the ability to search by UN document symbol. It does not have browseability options, however. The UN’s “Documents” page provides that feature for selected UN bodies.

The UN aims to retrospectively digitize older documents. These documents are being scanned and added daily. The UN reached a major milestone in this effort in 2009 when it added Security Council documents from 1946-1992 to the ODS. However, S/AC and other subsidiary SC documents are not online. The UN now is prioritizing adding older General Assembly official records and meeting records. Pre-1993 Economic and Social Council documents (though selected documents of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, E/CN.4/Sub.2, seem to be in the ODS from 1949 to date) and the Trusteeship Council remain to be digitized.

I somehow expected the ODS to be a central hub for all digitized UN documents and publications, so there would be one place to check for them, but it is not. The ODS is easy to search, but it is not easy to link directly to documents therein from the library catalog.

United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC)

The continually updated version of Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General (MTDSG, or formerly known as the “treaty bible”) is online at the UNTC website. In a May 5, 2010 statement, UN Legal Counsel Patricia O’Brien indicated that, as part of a “green” initiative, the paper version of the MTDSG will no longer be published. 2009 will be the last print edition. She also indicated that the Statement of Treaties and International Agreements Registered or Filed and Recorded with the Secretariat will only be available electronically after April 1, 2010.

The UNTC database includes all published volumes of the League of Nations Treaty Series (LNTS) and the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS). A 1998 article on the UNTC on the Internet (92 Am. J. Int’l L. 140) indicated an eight-year gap between registration of a treaty and publication in the UNTS. Per Ms. O’Brien, The UN is undertaking a major initiative to reduce this gap:

As announced last year, a great effort is being made to make the texts of treaties registered with the Secretariat electronically available on the Treaty Section’s website, shortly after their registration. While treaties are today published electronically in their authentic languages, the goal is also now to publish on line the translations in English and French, as soon as they are received from the UN translation services. This will ensure prompt electronic publication of individual treaties registered with the Secretariat. The Treaty Section is looking at ways to maximize the opportunities provided by new technology to reduce the number of copies of the UN Treaty Series printed on paper and to make them available on the Treaty Section’s website as early as possible. Let me recall that nearly all publications issued by the Office of Legal Affairs are available through HeinOnline, a well-known internet source to which many libraries are subscribed.

More rapid dissemination of treaties online via the United Nations Treaty Collection will benefit researchers. However, the UNTC database has still one major flaw. Users cannot retrieve treaties by citation. They have to perform a keyword or popular name search to get the full text of the treaty for which they already have a UNTS citation.

International Law Commission (ILC)

Most of the International Law Commission’s publications are digitized – its yearbooks, reports, and other documentation, from the very first session in 1949 to present. Some limited publication (“L”) documents are not available in electronic format. Searches for documents with the A/CN.4 UN document symbol in the ODS system indicate that the ODS system has not incorporated most of these documents, although they are available at the ILC’s website.

United Nations Office of Legal Affairs

The UN Office of Legal Affairs has digitized all of the UN’s legal publications back to the first volumes. These include all the proceedings of UN diplomatic conferences on law-related topics such as the Law of the Sea (1958, 1960, 1973-1982) and the Law of Treaties (1968-1969), the Reports of International Arbitral Awards (RIAA), and the various UN yearbooks. They are browseable and full text keyword searchable. These publications are also available online via the United Nations Audiovisual Library for International Law (AVL)(winner of the 2009 IALL Web Site Award) and via the Hein United Nations Law Collection subscription database.

Documents of UN Adjudicative Bodies

The UN’s AVL Library and “International Law” page link to the webpages of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda (ICTY and ICTR), the Permanent Court for International Justice (PCIJ), the United Nations Administrative Tribunal (UNAT), and other special courts. Most international tribunal publications, reports, documents, decisions are online. Notably, the decisions are not published online as they would look in official print reports.

Other UN Bodies

Publications and documents of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) are digitized, including meeting documents back to the first session in 1968 and the UNCITRALYearbook. The ODS database also includes these publications and documents (A/CN.9 document symbol). The Yearbook of the United Nations is online back to 1946. UN Disarmament Commission documents seems to go back to 1952. Apparently free e-versions of UN General Assembly Sixth Committee (Legal) documents pre-1993 are unavailable. Documents are also available via a new UN “Rule of Law” page.

United Nations Law Collection via HeinOnline

The Hein United Nations Law Collection enables users to immediately find full texts of treaties by UNTS citation, but is expensive to subscribe to. It also includes ICJ Reports, the RIAA, ILC, ICJ, and UNCITRAL yearbooks, ILC monographs (such as its Analytical Guide), the UN Juridical Yearbook, the UN Yearbook on Human Rights, UNCITRAL publications, official records of the UN Law of the Sea (LOS), Law of Treaties, and other diplomatic conferences, the United Nations Legislative Series, and multi-volume Documents of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (1945). The UNLC includes summary records for the 6th Committee (Legal) from 1946-1983. The UNLC duplicates many UN law publications available freely at UN websites. Its high annual subscription cost may make libraries wonder if the UNLC’s convenient get-treaty-by-UNTS-citation and other search features, and potential as a centralized, complete collection of UN legal materials, are worth the ongoing price.

What’s Missing?

As can be seen, digitized UN documents are all over. Researchers need a central resource for accessing all law-related UN documents and publications in electronic format. For the UN, that seems to be UNBISnet and not the ODS. I think it would be optimal for it to be both. Hein’s United Nations Law Collection could serve as that central hub, but it seems to be focused on UN publications and not documents. Also, for human rights research, digitization of pre-1993 ECOSOC documents is key and should be the next priority. And the Treaty Section should find a way to enable retrieving a treaty by UNTS citation via the UN Treaty Collection database. Because of the “green” initiative, print versions of the UNTS may disappear in the future. This prospect makes clear the paramount importance of enhancing and improving access to the online version of the UNTS.


  1. interesting analysis. Indeed these two databases are the heart of the UN intellectual input. ODS is specifically the hub for the UN official docs. UNBISNET is the entire holding of the library…providing bibliographic info for monographs and full text of all docs published from 1993. Refer to the DHL resguide for updates and further information.