UPDATE: Sustainable Development Law (SDL) Research Guide

By Gary Yessin

Update by Sarah Sullivan

Sarah Sullivan is a Research Librarian at Baker McKenzie in San Francisco, California. She has a J.D. from UC Hastings College of the Law, an MLIS from San Jose State University, and a BA from UC Santa Cruz.

Published May/June 2018

(Previously updated by Kristina Alayan in February 2014)

See the Archive Version!

1. Introduction

Historically, sustainable development law has often focused on environmental issues in developed countries. Indeed, sustainable development was recognized long before the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (culminating in the Stockholm Declaration). Scholars, citizens, and government officials have debated the tension between the Earth’s natural resources and the needs of both current and future generations. More recently, the field of Sustainable Development Law (SDL) has shifted to an integration of international economic, social, and environmental law. Human rights advocates hope that this more integrated approach will allow SDL to respond more nimbly to chronic, complex issues like poverty. “The link between poverty and environmental degradation is well recognized and constitutes, unfortunately, a vicious cycle: poverty leads to environmental degradation which, in turn, leads to more poverty which leads to even more environmental degradation” (p. 314-5, Segger and Khalfan, 2004). Still, one of the major issues in this area is whether "sustainable development" is law, soft law, or policy.

Sustainable development law: principles, practices, and prospects (Segger and Khalfan, 2004) provides the best introduction to the emerging field of Sustainable Development Law (see below). This guide will provide an extended introduction to the topic in an effort to aid legal researchers, but it is not intended to be comprehensive. Researchers will likely find the interdisciplinary nature of this field to be challenging. SDL can be found in traditional primary law, as well as soft law. As this field evolves, policy and scholarly work will continue to move the discussion and legal developments forward.

2. Searching Library Catalogs & Selected Monographs

2.1. Searching Library Catalogs

Subject searches allow for more focused catalog searching with generally fewer, higher value results. Some recommended starting points include the following:

As Mary Rumsey noted in her GlobaLex article titled “Basic Guide to Researching Foreign Law,” “Not every country will have materials indexed under every subject heading.” As a result, researchers may need to expand their search using a broader keyword searches. These searches may also be useful for highly specialized and developing areas of law.

2.2. Selected Monographs

3. Treaties and Agreements

(From "Table of major treaties and other documents," International law and policy of sustainable development, French, 2005)


1946: International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, 161 UNTS 72: 38, 60, 126, 127

1947: General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ('GATT 1947'), 55 UNTS 194

1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res. 217 A, 10 December 1948: 71, 73, 156, 209-210, 311

1957: Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community ('Treaty of Rome'), 298 UNTS 11: 39, 42, 56

1958: Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas, 559 UNTS 285: 38

1960: Founding Convention of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ('OECD Convention'), 888 UNTS 179: 39

1966: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 6 ILM (1967) 360: 65

1969: Convention on the Law of Treaties ('1969 Vienna Convention'), 8 ILM (1969) 679: 44

1972: Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment ('Stockholm Declaration'), UN Doc. A/CONF/48/14/REV.1 (1972): 47, 52, 55, 58, 64, 88, 135, 170, 182

1973: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 993 UNTS 243: 119, 125, 127, 140

1974: Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, GA Res. 3201 (S-VI), 1 May 1974: 28, 60

1982: United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 21 ILM (1982) 1261: 38

1986: UN Declaration on the Right to Development, GA Res. 41/128, 4 December 1986: 14, 62

1990: Agreement establishing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 29 ILM (1990) 1077: 41, 182, 210



1997: Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change ('Kyoto Protocol'), 37 ILM (1998) 22: 43, 70, 77-80, 81, 82, 96, 104-105

2000: Millennium Declaration, GA Res. 55/2, 18 September 2000: 15, 176

2001: Doha Ministerial Declaration, WT/MIN(01)/DEC/1, 20 November 2001: 163, 200, 201, 205-207, 210


2009: The Copenhagen Accord, FCCC/CP/2009/11/Add.1


4. Serials

5. Academic Programs

6. Organizations

To find additional organizations please see Duke University’s NGO and IGO Research Guides. Both guides include a custom search engine. In addition, the NGO Research Guide includes a searchable database with nearly 700 NGOs including relevant contact information, websites, and affiliations. Users can filter results by subject, region, and type.

7. Research Guides

Many research guides are available for the broader topic of International Environmental Law, and often include a handful of resources dedicated to SDL. Online research guides dedicated to SDL are beginning to become more readily available, though they often have a domestic focus. Karina Condra’s Sustainable Development and International Law guide is designed to support a course taught at the Sturm College of Law. The wide variety of issues and integrated nature of SDL is reflected in the numerous tabs, headings, and subheadings. Resources are organized by type (e.g., Secondary Sources, Reference Materials, Statistics), as well as by organization (e.g., United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization), and subject (e.g., Indigenous Peoples).

The American Society of International Law’s Electronic Information System for International Law (EISIL) research tool provides access to primary legal materials, authoritative websites and relevant research guides organized by subcategory. EISIL includes a subcategory on Sustainable Development. Related subcategories include Biodiversity and Protection of the Environment, and Trade & Environment.

8. Abbreviations

ACP African, Caribbean and Pacific group of States
ASEAN Association of South East Asian Nations
CBD 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity
CDF Comprehensive Development Framework
CISDL Centre for International Sustainable Development Law
COMESA Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa
CSD Commission on Sustainable Development
EBRD European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
EC European Community
ECOWAS Economic Community of West African States
EIA Environmental Impact Assessment
EU European Union
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization
G7 Group of 7: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, United States
G77 Group of 77: non-aligned movement of developing States (often G77/China)
GATT General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GDP Gross Domestic Product
GNP Gross National Product
HDI Human Development Index
HIPC Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative
IBRD International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
ICESCR International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
ICJ International Court of Justice
ICSID International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes
ICTSD International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development
IDA International Development Association
IFC International Finance Corporation
IFI International Financial Institution
ILA International Law Association
ILO International Labor Organization
IMF International Monetary Fund
LDCs Least Developed Countries
MDB Multilateral Development Bank
MDGs Millennium Development Goals
MNE Multinational Enterprise
NAFTA North American Free Trade Agreement
NEPAD New Partnership for Africa's Development
NGOs Non-Governmental Organizations
NIEO New International Economic Order
OECD Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
OPEC Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
PRGF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility
PRSP Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper
R&D Research and Development
SAP Structural Adjustment Programme
SIA Sustainability Impact Assessment
TRIPS 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
UDHR Universal Declaration of Human Rights
UN United Nations
UNCED 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
UNCTAD United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
UNDP United Nations Development Programme
UNEP United Nations Environment Programme
UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNTS United Nations Treaty Series
WCED World Commission on Environment and Development
WHO World Health Organization
WIPO World Intellectual Property Organization
WSSD World Summit on Sustainable Development
WTO World Trade Organization
WWF World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund)