Human Rights

Certain fundamental rights belong to all human beings, including the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to work and education. Use this guide to begin your research, and contact Julie Lavigne for help.

Human Rights is a very broad, multidisciplinary subject that touches upon many different aspects of life. Sometimes it can be hard to focus in on a certain rights-based issue, but it is usually necessary. For example, it would be difficult to write a paper on "human rights in Canada": there are just too many people, groups, and issues to cover.

A couple of suggestions to help you get started:

  1. Figure out who, what, where, when.
    • Who? Rather than researching discrimination faced by Canadians generally, look at Canadian teenagers specifically, or even a specific sub-group of teenagers (eg, second-generation teenagers from a certain ethnic background).
    • What? Instead of looking at every type of discrimination faced by teenagers, look at the discrimination they face in the education system.
    • Where? Instead of studying all of Canada, look at Ontario, or even just in Ottawa.
    • When? Instead of studying the 20th century in its entirety, look at the 1980s specifically.
  2. Choose two perspectives or variables and compare them.
    • For example, how have things changed today from 50 years ago? Do males and females experience discrimination differently? How does the situation in Toronto compare to Ottawa?
  3. Do some background research to help narrow your topic.
    • A narrow topic will make it easier to search for sources later on.
    • Background research will help you learn what keywords, dates, locations, or disciplines of study are important for your research.
    • Some good ways to do background research include looking at news sources (newspapers, etc) and online resources like Wikipedia. (Note that Wikipedia is not usually a good source to cite in your final paper, but it can be helpful to point you in the right direction!)


Some books to help you with background research:

A good starting point may be The practical guide to humanitarian law (2014), or The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001). Another good list of books (both print and online) to help you with ideas for your human rights research can be found here.

Amnesty International issues many very interesting reports on various human rights issues which we receive on a yearly basis, as does Human Rights Watch.

Because so many issues in human rights are related to actual events involving actual people, you may find it useful to further pinpoint your topic by searching through news media coverage. It can also make your final paper more interesting if, rather than just having an academic or theoretical discussion of the issue, you are able to show how the theory you are discussing actually works in real life, by giving real examples. For comprehensive newspaper coverage, try searching in Canadian Newsstream or Canadian Business & Current Affairs. More resources can be found on our Finding News page, and there are also a few videos on Searching News Databases.

For more guidance, please see the MacOdrum Library's page on Choosing an Essay Topic or watch our video on Writing the Research Paper.

The easiest way to find books and articles, both in print and online, is by searching on the Library's main page

Search using keywords. Once you have your results, click on "Books" on the left-hand side of the screen in order to view just the books and e-books, or click on "Peer-Reviewed Journals" as well as  "Articles" to see just academic journal articles. To search just articles and e-books, select "Available Online". If you still have a very large results list, you can also use some of the following to further limit your results:

  • Publication Date = Only choose this if you have been given specific instructions about how recent your resources should be, or if you know that the area of law you are researching has drastically changed at a certain point in time. For example, the laws around immigration and how to claim refugee status changed substantially in about 2002, so you would only want pre-2002 resources if you were trying to compare the new system to the old.
  • Subject = Looking at the list of suggested terms may help you pinpoint more specifically the aspects of your topic that truly interest you.

Another important source of secondary materials is grey literature, information published outside the usual ambit of scholarly or academic publishing. A lot of the research and reports produced by governments and international organizations such as the UN is actually grey literature. For more on how to research this type of information, see the Library's How-To guide on Grey Literature.

Another useful resource might be government information. See our Government Information Subject Guide for more details.

Omni is the best place to start looking for journal articles about human rights, as it covers a wide range of interdisciplinary journals, including the vast majority of social sciences journals subscribed to by the Library. More advanced researchers, however, may wish to also search in some of the databases that more specifically target social sciences and human rights journals.

Scholars Portal Journals and Scholars Portal Books

  • Search through a wide selection of journal articles and e-books in all academic areas, as well as government and non-governmental organizations, covering all fields of study, but with particular strength in the social sciences. 

Google Scholar

  • Provides access to scholarly literature from many disciplines and sources. If you connect via the Library (rather than through Google directly), you should be able to immediately access the full text of any articles that are part of the Library's collection (if not, you sometimes get a page asking you to pay a fee to access full text). 

International Political Science Abstracts

  • Search over 900 journals and yearbooks in political science. his database tries to focus, in particular, on articles about countries for which information is scarce. Because it searches abstracts only, you should try to keep your keywords fairly general; however, there is often a link provided that you can then follow to access the full text.

PAIS Index

  • Search through journal article abstracts in public policy and public affairs. Because it searches abstracts only, you should try to keep your keywords fairly general; however, there is often a link provided that you can then follow to access the full text.


  • Digital library of academic journals, books and primary sources, across a wide range of subject areas, including business and economics, film studies, history, law, political science and sociology.


If your topic is has a definite legal angle to it, or if you need to find court cases or laws, please also consult the Law subject guide. You may also find the resources listed on the Government Information subject guide useful.

There are a large number of organizations working in the field of human rights, many of which produce high-quality publications and reports. While these are not usually peer-reviewed, many are quite authoritative, and can be very useful in terms of helping you to focus your research, as well as point you toward other resources of value.

Associations, Education and Research Institutions

Non-Governmental Organizations

Governmental and intergovernmental websites

Almost every Canadian province and territory also has a Human Rights Commission and Tribunal which should be accessible online via a quick Google search.


Online Library Research Guides

Other Sources

You can also use Google or any other Internet search engine to locate resources, but you should take extra time and care to think about whether the resources you have found are authoritative and trustworthy. Some questions that will help you decide:

  • Is the author or organization affiliated with an academic or other official institution (eg, a government department)?
  • What is the reputation of the author? Is he or she generally well-known as an expert in the area?
  • Has the document been cited or used by other research?
  • Is the web site associated with an educational or other official institution?
  • Is contact information for the website and/or author made available?

Take the CRAP test!

Make sure you check with your professor which citation style he or she would like you to use when referencing your work in your assignments. For information on citation styles, check out our How-To page on Citing Your Sources.

Avoiding plagiarism

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to plagiarize is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own [or] use (another's production) without crediting the source".

  • 5 tips to avoid plagiarism:
  1. TAKE NOTES: writing down page numbers and references throughout your research is a good way to save time when you need to quote and cite sources.
  2. NEVER copy and paste material unless you cite it properly.
  3. At the end of each paper/report you must CITE ALL SOURCES  you have used, whether you quote them directly or paraphrase the ideas.
  4. LEARN AND USE citation style guides and citation management tools.
  5. When in doubt, ask for help!


A couple of other texts that you may find useful:

Content last reviewed: May 5, 2020