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Why International Documents?
by Jim Church (Documents to the People, Spring 2009, Volume 37, No. 1)
This is the last international documents column I will be writing for GODORT, an organization to which I have belonged for twelve years. In my view GODORT is among the most active and dynamic groups in ALA. The commitment of GODORT members to government information issues always inspires me: as a colleague of mine once said (without irony) "you people actually DO things!" Yet as an international documents specialist in a group composed mostly of federal documents librarians, one sometimes feels isolated. At every conference I meet a colleague who confesses to me "I know nothing about international documents." If you fall into this category, this column is for you. What, after all, is the big deal about international organizations? Why do government information librarians choose to specialize in this field? And most importantly, what kinds of information can be obtained from sources provided by international government organizations (IGOs) that cannot be found elsewhere?
International Standards
Not many librarians write about government standards, and for good reason: almost no one is interested. But the global economy would flounder without international standards. Since we do not all speak the same language, internationally recognized codes are vital to global transport, communication and trade. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the World Maritime Organization (WMO) have crafted volumes of international standards that enable the modern world to function. Most librarians know about the North American Industry Classification System, a numerical hierarchy used to classify business and industrial establishments for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a multilateral treaty between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But the UN and other IGOs have created many other international classifications useful for reference. Chief among these are the UN Statistics Division's Standard International Trade Classification (SITC), the International Standard Industrial Classification (ISIC), and the World Customs Organization's Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS). The ISIC classifies industries, while the SITC and HS classify products and commodities. With all the changes in the world economy these codes undergo continual revision: the current ISIC is Revision 4, the current HS is 2007 (preceded by 2002 and 1996), and the last SITC code was Revision 3. You cannot work with labor data from the International Labour Organization or industry statistics from the UN Industrial Development Organization without understanding the ISIC; likewise you cannot use international commodity trade statistics without the SITC or HS. Less useful for reference, but no less important for the global economy, are standards used by the international technological organizations, including recommendations from the ITU Standardization Sector, standards from the ICAO Air Navigation Bureau (SARPS) and meteorological standards from the World Maritime Organization (WMO).1
International Law
What is international law? A simple answer to this question is difficult, but in brief public international law is a system of agreements that bind nation-states together. It includes charters, resolutions, dispute settlements, cases, and most importantly, treaties. Documents librarians know that U.S. treaties are ratified by the Senate, and that citations for current U.S. treaties can be found in the U.S. State Department publication Treaties in Force. But what about UN and other multilateral treaties? Where are they recorded, and how are they created? Space does not permit a full discussion of this; for a more exhaustive answer see the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library international law research guide. But a quick answer to the first question is that basic information about significant multilateral treaties from the UN can be found in UN publication Status of Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General, online and in print. The text of the treaties can be found on the UN Treaty Collection website, and in the voluminous print UN Treaty Series (UNTS). The creative process for a multilateral treaty can be complex: sometimes treaties originate in the UN International Law Commission or other UN commissions, sometimes they are done by the UN General Assembly or during international conferences (this does not include all the international economic treaties, European Union treaties, and so on). There are many excellent international treaty guides on the web (the EISIL website is among the best) but in my experience using Status of Multilateral Treaties and the UN Treaty database is sufficient for the majority of multilateral treaty questions.
International Organizations and Development
During the drafting of the UN Charter, countries from the developing world pressed rigorously for the creation and empowerment of an Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN body charged with international economic, social, cultural, educational, and health issues, as well as human rights.2 The success of ECOSOC has been mixed: the average citizen has never heard of ECOSOC, and global inequality, human rights abuses, and poverty remain rampant. But the fact that economic and social cooperation was put into the UN Charter was revolutionary.3 Out of this effort has sprung some of the UN's most successful agencies, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and many others. Conservative U.S. administrations have long disliked these organizations and regarded them with suspicion. The Bush administration, for example, withheld the $34 million allocated by the Congress for the UNFPA since 2002. But a librarian's first concern is for bibliographic value. These agencies publish an astonishing number of books, reports, and statistics: the UNDP's Human Development Reports, UNICEF's State of the World's Children, and the UNFPA's State of the World Population are standard reference works that are all free online, not to mention the wealth of statistics produced by the UN Statistics Division, including the UN Statistical Yearbook, the Demographic Yearbook, and many others.
International Organizations and Human Rights
At times UN efforts in the area of human rights seem little more than a joke; at worst they are tragically incompetent and outrageous. The common accusation is that the previous Commission on Human Rights (since replaced by the new Human Rights Council) functioned as nothing more than a hypocritical talk shop, staffed by ineffectual well-paid bureaucrats.4 Yet the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands as one of the most important documents of the twentieth century, upon which all the work of subsequent human rights groups has been founded. As Paul Kennedy notes, the Universal Declaration is "the Magna Carta of mankind" and has been translated into virtually every written language.5 Human rights have become a topic that will not go away: whether it is outrage over US torture of prisoners at Guantánamo or indignation over the Chinese treatment of Tibet (both the U.S. and China are permanent members of the Security Council) the subject remains a perpetual media topic and a pillar of the international civil society movement. While the UN has proved ineffectual at enforcing its manifold human rights resolutions, conventions, declarations, and treaties (note that neither the General Assembly nor the ECOSOC has the power to authorize the use of force, only the Security Council) it is virtually impossible for repressive governments to transgress international human rights law without the global community knowing about it and raising a fuss. If you are interested in reading reports from the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, see the UN Treaty Body Database. Select convention "CAT" (for "Committee Against Torture" - you need to know the acronyms) and choose either China or the United States. See the committee's "concluding observations." Neither of the world's two most powerful countries escapes unscathed.
International Organizations and Aid
The exaggerated generosity of the American government has become a cliché in our media: the U.S. supposedly supplies the overwhelming majority of Official Development Assistance (ODA) only to be reviled abroad and attacked at home. In fact, the U.S. ranks almost last of all rich countries in ODA, contributing 0.18 percent of its gross national income (GNI) - this is twenty-second out of the twenty-three OECD Development Assistance Committee member countries.6 Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project, notes that if all developed countries were to meet their Millennium Development commitment to contribute 0.7 percent of GNI to international aid (less than a cent of every dollar) the world would end extreme poverty by 2025. As Sachs notes drily, this would be "enough perhaps to buy a Dixie cup, but not enough to fill it with water."7 In spite of this callousness, the UN continues to make the effort. While the world remains a grim place in terms of poverty, hunger, illness, and other humanitarian crises, imagine a world with no UN. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped an estimated fifty million people over five decades, and currently works in 110 countries assisting 32.9 million people. Or UN Habitat, the UN Human Settlements agency, devoted to promoting sustainable towns and cities for the world's estimated one billion slum dwellers. Or the World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance agency of the UN that fed 86.1 million people in eighty countries in 2007. Much is made of the UN failures in combating humanitarian ills, but less mention is made of its success stories. Some of these include the World Health Organization's (WHO) Campaign to Eradicate Smallpox (smallpox claimed two million lives in 1967 and was eradicated by 1980) and its drastic reductions of polio and African river blindness; the UNICEF Campaign for Child Survival in the 1980s, estimated to have saved more than twelve million lives; and the UNFPA's role in coordinating global family planning, resulting in fertility declines of 5.0 children in 1950 to 2.8 children in 2000. If you are interested in reference titles from these organizations, here are a few. The UNHCR has ceased print distribution but publishes extensively online; see especially the statistics section as well as its flagship publication The State of the World's Refugees. The UN Habitat flagship publication is The State of the World's Cities, available directly from the agency or from commercial publishers. Even the WFP, the UN agency with the least overhead now publishes volumes in its World Hunger Series and others (see the publications section of the WFP site).
International Organizations and Children
I leave this category for last because it is one of the most important and underrated. One thing that shames me as a US citizen is that we still have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. For some reason I still struggle to convince colleagues that UNICEF and the other agencies devoted to the rights of children are relevant for research libraries. Part of this is the UN's fault: like other UN publication categories UNICEF is excluded from the UN depository program. But I am concerned that we may be adopting the errant ways of our masters. UNICEF is one of the UN's greatest success stories, and in addition to UNICEF there are many other bodies in the UN system devoted exclusively to victimized and underprivileged groups; for example indigenous peoples (UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues), persons with disabilities (Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), victims of landmines (United Nations Mine Action Service), and others. There is an entire UN program on the family, numerous agencies devoted to women, and countless agencies devoted to working for the poor. When I take a look at my own government I see nothing comparable. I sometimes like to imagine, in my more idealistic moments, what the U.S. government might be like if we were to consider adopting some of the words in the preamble of the UN Charter. I leave you with these:
Notes and References
  1. There are also Procedures for Air Navigation Services (PANS) and Regional Supplementary Procedures (SUPPS); in case you are interested, see ICAO. There are more than 3,000 ITU recommendations in force, ranging from telegraph transmission guidelines to broadband network configurations. The ITU sells a compilation of these on DVD and online and some are freely available.
  2. It is astonishing how few good books there are on UN history. Most tend to be specialized or focused on UN failures. A notable exception is The Parliament of Man: the Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations by Paul Kennedy (New York: Random House, 2006) which contains an eye-opening account of the creation of ECOSOC.
  3. Revolutionary, but practical. The Allied Powers, in particular the Roosevelt administration, recognized that civil unrest and the massive unemployment during the Great Depression were major causes of World War II.
  4. Originally set up under the auspices of ECOSOC, with the famous and now defunct E/CN.4 document symbol, the new Human Rights Council reports to the General Assembly with the new A/HRC document symbol (if you want to get really wonkish, the old "Sub-Committee on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights," with the E/CN.4/Sub.2 symbol has likewise been replaced by the new and improved "Advisory Committee" - but what's in a name).
  5. Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: the Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006), 180.
  6. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Factbook (Paris: OECD, 2008), 221. Sweden is the most generous, contributing 1.02 percent of its income.
  7. Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2006), 267.