The Tangled Web: Human Rights Sources on The Web

January 1, 2001

The first ofthese meetings was a three-hander, involving Iain Mitchell QC, John Gailey ofPilgrim Systems PLC and Duncan Spiers, Advocate. The present article is basedupon the presentations given at the meeting and is the joint work of those threepresenters, but his co-authors are indebted to Duncan Spiers for his majorcontribution to researching the present article (especially the comprehensivelisting of site addresses).

Where to Begin?

With the introduction of the direct justiciability of the European Convention onHuman Rights into the law of Scotland in 1999 in terms of the Scotland Act 1998,and into the United Kingdom as a whole in October 2000, the working lawyersuddenly finds that he needs access to a whole new raft of jurisprudence whichwas formerly only the concern of the specialist. Inevitably, the prize will goto those lawyers who are best equipped to locate the relevant law, which will befound in what may well be (for the busy practitioner) new and hitherto unknownplaces.

The similarity of the European Convention to the UN Conventionwas not coincidental. The European Convention exists in a framework of othersimilar fundamental law texts which are to be found throughout the free world:for example, in Canada, Australia and the United States – and not only at thefederal level but also at the State and provincial levels. Already, in humanrights cases before the Scottish Courts there are references not only to theEuropean case-law, but also to cases from all over the world, both the obviousjurisdictions and those which are not so obvious, such as Quebec.

Scottish Cases

Two recent Scottish cases illustrate this trend.

Procurator Fiscal, Kirkcaldy v Kelly (18 August 2000)

This case involved the question whether an accused has a fairhearing in public when communications between district court clerks and thejustices are private and out with the presence of the accused and his legaladvisors. The Criminal Appeal Court decided that there was no contravention ofArticle 6(1) and that an accused did have a fair hearing in public.

In coming to its decision, the Appeal Court consideredprincipally the constitution of the District Court but also took time toconsider two Belgian cases, Delcourt v Belgium (1970) 1 EHRR 355 and Borgers vBelgium (1991) 1 EHRR 92 These cases, while based on similar facts, differedgreatly in their outcomes. It was noted that ‘the concept of a fair trial hadundergone a considerable evolution in the case law of the Court since the caseof Delcourt in 1970’ [para. 17] in particular that justice now has to be seento be done.

Margaret Anderson Brown v Procurator Fiscal, Dunfermline (2000)The Times, 14 February

This case involved a verbal requirement made by police unders172 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to name the driver of a car. The appellant wasasked for this information at a time when she appears to have been undersuspicion herself of having driven the car at the requisite time. She claimedthat her right to a fair and public hearing under Article 6(1) had beencontravened in that she had been denied her right to silence and right againstself-incrimination. It was held that in her particular circumstances she hadbeen denied her right to a fair and public hearing under Article 6(1). [Thisdecision has recently been reversed. See Stdt (Procurator Fiscal, Dunfermline) vBrown (2000) The Times, 6 December.]

The Lord Justice General noted that Article 6(3) did not includea right to silence and against self-incrimination but that the jurisprudence ofthe European Court of Human Rights included reference to such rights for examplein paras 68 and 69 of Saunders v United Kingdom (Reports of Judgements andDecisions 1996-VI, page 2044) where it was observed ‘although not specificallymentioned in Article 6 of the convention, the right to silence and the right notto incriminate oneself are generally recognised international standards whichlie at the hear of the notion of fair procedure under Article 6’ [para 68].The Lord Justice General observed that ‘it is therefore legitimate for thiscourt to supplement any guidance to be derived from the decisions of the Courtitself by having regard to constitutional texts from other countries and todecisions of their courts on the interpretation and application of thosetexts.’ Thereafter a considerable number of materials from beyond the Europeanjurisdictional region were considered including cases from South Africa, Canada,United States.

The Message

What these two cases tell us is that, in considering European human rightsmaterials, we can expect our search for a proper construction of Europeanmaterials to take us beyond the articles of the European Convention, beyond theEuropean cases and thence to materials showing global trends. It is incumbentupon us to recognise that we should expect an evolution of general principlesand to become aware of global trends. Essentially, this trend means that the lawhas now become a great deal more diffuse and difficult to pin down than it usedto be.

Global Materials on the Net

Practising lawyers should remember the reassuring advice embossed on the coverof The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Don’t Panic’. Textbooks, suchas Lester and Pannick’s Human rights: law and practice, can give a jumping-offpoint, but at the end of the day a great deal of original research is likely tobe necessary, and this is where IT and, in particular, the Net can come to therescue, for there is a wealth of global material now readily available over theInternet.

This plethora of material creates its own problems. Whileconventional search strategies could and perhaps, should constitute thestarting-point – reading the Convention itself and the standard textbookswould reveal the Article number, the concept and, possibly, the leading cases,any one of which could be the foundation for a search – however, even thisapproach should be used with care: searching against ‘Article 6’ of theEuropean Convention is not normally going to recover material on a similar, butdifferently-numbered provision of the Canadian Charter, and a search against‘inhuman or degrading treatment‘ is not normally going to produce materialson the US concept of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, though the two conceptsare clearly closely related.

The real problem which faces any Internet surfer in this area isthe plethora of sites of varying quality and completeness. How good or reliableare the sites which you are searching?


While search engines providing advanced search criteria such as WebFerret(downloadable at provide considerable assistance, the number of resulting pages can makesearching for those that are actually relevant a daunting task. Furthermore,many of the pages that are listed are slanted in some way towards thecompiler’s interests. Often the links on these pages are out of date andsimply produce error messages which add to frustration.

To test its effectiveness, WebFerret was instructed to searchfor sites where there can be found material relating to human rights in thecontext of trials or tribunals but not relating to torture – ‘(human rights)not torture and (trial or tribunal)’ . This is quite a complex Boolean searchand the results were generally remarkably relevant. The more vague the search,the wider the results, demonstrating that it is always advisable to read theonline information. One of the main advantages is that, rather than relying onthe results returned by a single search engine such as Yahoo ( Alta Vista (,WebFerret trawls right across a wide range of sites, replicating the search andcollating the results, complete with optional ‘pop-up’ summaries.

Lawyers with a knowledge engine type of portal (such asHummingbird’s Enterprise Information Portal) will already be familiar with theconcept, where information is proactively trawled for and collated into acoherent locally organised source.

United Nations

However, even obvious sites may frustrate. For example, a search for the UnitedNations Universal Declaration on Human Rights may lead one, not unsurprisinglyto the UN Treaties page ( here we discover that this venerable organisation is averse to publicisingits achievements on the Net without a subscription!

The subscription page ( opens with the note that ‘Every treaty and every internationalagreement entered into by any Member of the United Nations after the presentCharter comes into force shall as soon as possible be registered with theSecretariat and published by it’ but then proceeds to tell the user that anon-profit organisation or individual must pay $50 per month or $500 per year(and profit organisations pay twice as much). However, all is not lost. Thereare helpful collections of treaties (including UN Treaties) to be found free ofcharge in various places. Two good starting places for various lines of enquiryare the British Universities bibliographical search sites – by the Centre for Digital Library Research at Strathclyde Universitywhose International Law site is at the Social Science Information Gateway ( human rights page is at

Council of Europe

A useful resource detailing Treaties and Conventions of importance to which theUK is a signatory is to be found at the Council of Europe’s Treaty Collectionat enables us to locate a mass of important and relevant documents. Forexample, in addition to the Convention itself together with all of itsprotocols, there are agreements on social, medical, cultural, environmental,patent, and extradition matters, amongst others. In fact most of the majoragreements are represented. This makes this a useful starting point. The indexdetails the names of the documents in date order and gives dates of signatureand ratification which make for easy identification.

Avalon Project

For many purposes the Avalon Project at Yale provides another useful collectionwhether your interests are legal, historical or diplomatic. The site is at

It is conveniently split into time periods for those with ahistorical bent. But for most, the 20th Century division will be of greatestinterest.

Although an alphabetic listing is automatically provided, thesite is searchable. Many major documents of the 20th century can be found here.However, the site is principally geared as a teaching aid for US students andthere are a number of gaps (indeed, you won’t even find the EuropeanConvention on Human Rights here). Usefully, though, there is a sub-collectioncontaining a number of UN documents including the Universal Declaration of HumanRights (

The Avalon site gives many hours of interest and many gems canbe found here, for example the Warsaw Pact (,a whole collection devoted to World War II documents (,historical items such as the British-American Diplomacy collection (

Hague Convention

Of particular interest is the Hague Convention site at contains useful resources such as the Hague Convention on the ServiceAbroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in civil or Commercial Mattersdated 15 November 1965 ( to which refence is made in the Rules of Court; and the Hague Convention onthe Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction dated 25 October 1980 ( forms the background to the Child Abduction and Custody Act 1985.


Another resource of note is the American Society of International LawyersInternet resources site at at last are links from an American site to European resources. The ASILsite, being analysed into interests, is arguably a better way to locatespecialist interest resources.

Another analysed site is the Globelaw site ( its somewhat narrower but nevertheless analysed divisions of interest.

Specific Interest Collections

In addition to the above resource collections, there are other collections ofspecific interests. These include the many special interest academic collectionssuch as the European Environmental Law Page supported by the T.M.C. AsserInstituut in Holland (;special agency sites such as the European Environment Agency (;and specialist interest or lobbying groups such as Amnesty International ( Friends of the Earth ( link pages provide interesting leads in their specialist areas.

Commercial Sites

In addition to free Web sites, all the major commercial suppliers are poised tojump on the human rights bandwagon.

Commercial sources such as Butterworths Lexis and Westlaw havean advantage in that materials often contain ‘added value’, in the guise ofeditorially introduced hyperlinks. These operate like the hyperlinks in BAILLI ( in BAILLI, the linkages are automatically generated and rely upon thevagaries of the English language so may not be as comprehensive. Lawtel andJustis have also set up specific human rights collections, allowing access to arestricted cross-section of their material at restricted cost.

All of the services should be able to offer demonstration accessso that you can see for yourself whether the added value is also value formoney.

Butterworths Lexis




The foregoing survey highlights a number of useful lead sites which ought toenable the practical lawyer to remain orientated when searching through whatwould otherwise be a tangled web. Such ‘pre-packaged’ sites often provide amuch more focused view of materials and can therefore be much more useful thansearch engines where a mass of unanalysed leads may take one hither or thitherand often to sites of little practical use or sites which are out of date orcontain expired links.

Caveat Conspector

There are many other collections of interest (a detailed listing is given below)– but beware the slant some may have. Provenance is all important! Anyone withgood design skills and the monthly cost of an ISP in their pocket can producesomething that looks much more authoritative than an official site.


When research materials are easily and readily available, lawyers will tend touse them. The jurisprudence will thus tend to grow and to push forward thefrontiers of the substantive law.

In the context of human rights law, though there are many different national(and international) systems, there is a similarity amongst them which arises outof common historical antecedents. They, each of them, have a claim to beasserting rights which are fundamental to Western liberal democracy andembracing concepts which seek to be universal in application. Because of theshared value-systems of the societies which spawned them, there will, in anyevent, be a pressure to convergence.

In a world without the Web, the difficulty of doing comparativeresearch would tend to put a practical restraint upon how far and how fast suchconvergence might go. Conversely, the ready availability of the comparativejurisprudence on the Web, with lawyers who are equipped to research it, willinevitably lead to a widening and deepening of such convergence.

It is often said that the Internet will create pressures whichwill lead to economic globalisation. It may also be that, in the field of humanrights at least, the above conditions will lead to a kind of globalisation ofthe law, for the first time putting flesh on the bones of the 18th-centuryaspiration towards ‘natural law’, that is to say, a common and universalcode of human rights.


General collections and entry gateways



American Society of International Lawyers

Yale University Avalon Project

Miral international law page

International law reports database

International Criminal Tribunal

Univ of Western Australia international law

Pritchard international law links

Max Planck Institute for international law

Specific collections

United Nations Treaty collection (subscription)

PACE Environmental Law Library

European Environmental Law Page

Globelaw site

Hague Conference site

Council of Europe Treaty Collection

Environmental protection

Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide

European Centre for Nature Conservation

European environmental agency

Environmental Agency

Foundation for international environmental law and development

Environmental Treaties and resources

World Conservation monitoring centre

Human Rights

Canadian Human Rights Commission

Other Canadian Human Rights Commissions

The Human Rights Act

European Court of Human Rights

European Commission on Human rights

UK Beagle Human Rights digest

Diana human rights database

European Convention on human rights

Derechos – human rights on the internet

Human Rights Internet

Minnesota Human Rights Library

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human rights web

Florida State Univ international law

University of Kent human rights links

Specific agencies

European Environment Agency

International Atomic Energy Agency

International Labour Organisation

Lobby organisations

Amnesty International

Friends of the Earth


Pesticide Action

Soil Association