Law Library Creates Database of UN Human Rights Documents

Searchable Archive of 2,800 Documents Now Available to Researchers
United Nations illustration
July 11, 2017

For the first time, a new online database curated by the University of Virginia School of Law Library compiles the preparatory documents for nine international human rights conventions created by the United Nations.

The treaties featured in the Travaux Préparatoires project form the core of the U.N.’s stances regarding human rights. They affirm the rights of children, migrant workers and people with disabilities, among others.

The documents for each of the treaties were created during the U.N.’s drafting process, and may include official transcripts of deliberations, records of minutes, voting records and documents submitted to the preparatory committees.

Library staff said the effort to digitize the documents with full text-search functionality was a massive one.

“These days, you start to expect that everything’s online,” Head of Library Instruction and Research Librarian Ben Doherty said. “But I think as librarians, you realize, no, a lot of things are not online because it’s very difficult to do this kind of thing. I mean, this was hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of work.”

Head of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Loren Moulds said the inclusion of a text-searchable database makes it easier for researchers to spot trends and patterns in how countries interact with each other when negotiating international agreements.

That very reason sparked the project in 2013. Professor Mila Versteeg, who also directs the Law School’s Human Rights Program, and Kevin Cope, research assistant professor of law, wanted to do quantitative text analysis of the preparatory documents to assess states’ attitudes toward human rights. However, no such database existed.

But legal scholars had created catalogues and guides listing all of the travaux related to the U.N. conventions in question, which the library team could use to develop a master list of documents for the database. Ultimately, the list grew to more than 2,800 documents.

Many of the documents already existed in digital format on various U.N. websites, but others had to be located in a physical format, such as microfiche, then scanned and uploaded to the database.

The library team hired a temporary worker, Gina Wohlsdorf, to help track down, scan and categorize the documents.

“Gina was absolutely essential to moving forward on this,” Moulds said. “She was the one who became an expert on selecting and tracking down the documents, making sure the data was correct.”

Wohlsdorf used the Law Library and Alderman Library to locate documents. As a U.N. depository library, Alderman contained physical copies of many of the documents that were not available yet online.

Student volunteers or outside vendors transcribed the documents in order to render them text-searchable, and added relevant metadata. Moulds developed a search tool and web interface.

Cope continues to use the database, and said it has been useful in pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. One of the focuses of his doctoral research was “developing a spatial model of the negotiations” that went into drafting the conventions. Similar to how researchers develop models to place senators or Supreme Court justices on a spectrum between “conservative” and “liberal,” he said, the models illustrate various U.N. members’ positions on international legal issues.

“From that, then we can see: How can we predict what sorts of policies states will pursue in these negotiations?” Cope said. “Are they a function of their relative military or economic strength in the international arena? Are they a function of legal origin or cultural explanations, domestic politics? And so forth.”

Moulds and Doherty presented the database at an international human rights conference at UVA Law in the spring. They said they were pleased with the response from scholars.

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