Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


International Organizations (IOs), created by the commitments made by sovereign states, exist in the conceptual and legal space between state sovereignty and legal obligation.

Some IOs are able to coerce their member states into complying with their commitments; for instance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has a military component and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has coercive leverage over its borrowers. But far more commonly they are left to find ways to induce compliance from their members.

IOs set rules for nations and provide venues for diplomacy. There are two types of international organizations: International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) and International Nongovernmental Organizations (INGOs or, more commonly, NGOs). In recent years, Multinational Corporations (MNCs) have also had a significant impact on the international system.

IGOs and NGOs exist for a variety of reasons, such as controlling the proliferation of conventional and nuclear weapons, supervising trade, maintaining military alliances, ending world hunger, and fostering the spread of democracy and peace.

As interdependence between states increases the importance of IOs increases as they are at the heart of all of the political and economic challenges of the twenty-first century. Today's leading controversies involve some measure of international cooperation and commitment managed through formalized IOs.

The Concept of IO

IO is a cluster concept which does not depend on a set of fixed criteria. Some entities are in the core of the concept, others are more on the fringes. Besides actors which are inter-state in form, other entities with multiple legal bases and with a hybrid membership may be qualified as international organizations. The concept should also encompass actors devoid of legal personality when they are sufficiently structured and stable to distinguish them from mere networks and ad hoc cooperation.

A comprehensive concept is therefore indispensable because globalization and global governance build on the very fact of these actors. Such conceptual move must not turn against the initial intentions, actually ending up with a surplus of legal protection and legitimacy of entities whose operations do not meet material standards of the rule of law and cannot be traced back to any political decision or process.

International Cooperation

In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, some issues are too big for countries to handle on their own. Countries need to work together, and they do so in part through IOs that bolster and complement national institutions by promoting and developing common solutions at the international level.

IOs, taking different forms (international, regional, groups of like-minded countries or institutions sharing common issues and priorities), offer platforms for continuous dialogue on and anticipation of new issues; help establish a common language; facilitate the comparability of approaches and practices; develop international legal and policy instruments; and offer resolution mechanisms in case of disputes.

Because of their nature, IOs are often seen as intrinsically connected to globalisation and therefore blamed for its shortcomings by the less thriving economies, which tend to blame globalisation for wage stagnation and unemployment.

The skepticism against globalisation has created an urgent need for transparent and inclusive rules and institutions, essential both at the international and at the domestic levels, to rebuild confidence in public action and in the multilateral system.

This is why greater transfer of expertise and of evidence between the national and the international levels would support a better understanding of the impacts of international instruments and build a better evidence base across countries and IOs to inform the future development of normative instruments.

Prominent IOs

IOs spanning across the globe with their scope and presence, hold a significant place in world issues. These organizations make mass impacts on countries, laws and global peacekeeping. Therefore, these organizations take care of a wide range of issues that transcend global boundaries and local laws. While reading a newspaper daily you must have gone through many of them, as they are always mentioned in some news piece.

As far as the main international organizations and institutions involved in crucial decisions and actions related to international economics, international security, and international law, they surely are: the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Characteristics of IOs

Organisations come in all kinds, shapes and forms. Some are military alliances; some are profit-making; some engage in law enforcement activities; some aim to advocate a particular political or economic agenda on behalf of a limited group of states; some are devoted to education or academic research; some are highly formal creatures; some are highly informal creatures; some unequivocally work for the global common good, however defined; others perform technical tasks; and some aim to spread ideologies or maintain cultural ties.

Organisations are pictured as innately good, socially beneficial creatures, which should be given the room and facilities to perform and perhaps even expand. Many have held that organisations can remedy the defects of the global legal order. Historically speaking, this makes some sense: international organisations, based in law if not always in fact on the sovereign equality of their member states, came to replace the naked exercise of power by important states and thus carried an implicit promise of a better world. At the very least, small powers could avoid being ‘bossed around’ by major powers by entering into formal organisations with them. 

The moral luck resides in the circumstance that truly malicious international organisations are unknown. A high-profile attempt to establish a nefarious directorate in the form of an international organisation was proposed, but was eventually aborted. In the 1920s, Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini proposed an international organisation, comprised of Germany (about to become Nazified), the UK and France, in order to dominate Europe’s smaller powers. Reportedly, the scheme failed because France refused to participate. But had Mussolini’s initiative been successful, it would have presented international institutional law with a serious dilemma: how to treat an international organisation whose purpose would be considered by many as malicious. Anyway there is a need to classify international organisations with a view to increasing fairness and transparency.

IOs accountability

The United Nations (UN) inaction in the face of the Rwandan Genocide is probably the most famous precedent in which an IO has been accused of failing its mandate which, even in the absence of clear legal standards, is potentially relevant to establish binding primary obligations. However, in the majority of cases mandates do not explicitly set up obligations.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has once more shown that IOs are ideal scapegoats. Whether it be the delays of the WHO, the “missing in action” Security Council or the lack of solidarity by the European Union (EU), national governments and local politicians find in IOs an ideal pressure relief valve for the malcontent of their electorates.

But did the UN purpose to maintain peace and security create a legal obligation for the UN to act before the COVID-19 pandemic? The wording of the UN Charter and of the WHO Constitution does not express an obligation. As for the Treaty on EU, obligations are included in Paragraph Six, which generically imposes the EU “to purse its objectives by appropriate means commensurate with the competences”.

Anyway, the failure to pursue the mandate does not concern the organization only, but also its member states which are not free from relevant obligations. Besides obligations that can be found in constitutive treaties, member states are tied to the pursuit of the mandate by membership obligations that are established in general international law. At the very least, member states are obliged to put the organization in the condition to fulfill its treaty obligations.

Member States vs International Organizations

Why are there so many IOs, why do they vary so widely in scope, and how are they permitted (and not permitted) to affect international law and international relations? When states establish an IO, they create an institution with a life of its own. In doing so, states risk, as in Frankenstein's novel, of creating a monster and acting contrary to their interests.

The effort by states to avoid creating a monster explains, among other things, why there are so many IOs and why states have been reluctant to give IOs the authority necessary to make progress on important global issues. Though there is a trade-off between the preservation of state control over the international system and the creation of effective and productive IOs, states have placed far too much weight on the former and not nearly enough on the latter.

IOs such as the UN play an important role in war prevention. In theory, IOs reduce the risk of war between belligerents by improving communication, facilitating cooperation, and building confidence and trust. In practice, however, IOs’ war-preventing capacities have sparked skepticism and criticism. Despite the obvious progress in research on IOs and war prevention, there remain methodological and theoretical issues that deserve consideration for further investigation, two of which are: the interaction of domestic and international organizations, and the implications of variations in IOs design.

As for the Risk Management of extreme weather events, migrations, conflicts, extreme poverty, we see a fragmentation of roles and functions, as most of the IOs are sectoral, with a specific focus and field of interest (World Food Program, United Nations Climate Change Conference, United Nations High Commission for Refugees etc…) and with very few coordination fora . Yet, there is a need to deal with the big picture (as issues are often interconnected) together with an increasing demand for legitimacy and accountability. Debates on the improvement of international organizations or the creation of a new international organization cannot avoid taking in these democratic expectations to some extent.

The Design and Effects of International Institutions

International institutions have acquired an almost obvious presence in international politics. Remarkably, they come in such diverse forms as international organizations with permanent secretariats and nearly universal membership (such as the United Nations) and bilateral agreements in a specific policy field (such as bilateral investment treaties). Some are highly legalized (such as the World Trade Organization), while others only foresee consultations among the members in case of dispute.

International organisations have recently come under pressure following Brexit, the mandate of Donald Trump, and the unstoppable rise of China. For much of the post-war period, international organisations have largely operated out of the limelight; however, this is changing as their authority increases. Policymakers should realize that international organizations’ growing authority may fuel a political backlash that could lead to stagnation or even backsliding. While there are compelling reasons for deeper international collaboration in an interdependent world, political contestation has the potential to override them.

Can IOs act as troubleshooters?

IOs contribute to a rule-based international system in support of better policies and better lives. Nevertheless, they are not immune from a context where trust in public institutions, evidence, and expert advice is deteriorating. It is necessary to identify the conditions for more successful outcomes in the international rule-making landscape, at a time when coordinated action is more crucial than ever to address the issues affecting mankind.. Widely adopted rules and standards supported by international organizations are the most visible sign of collective efforts to support social and economic stability globally.

The Partnership of international organizations must work to clarify the terminology used for international instruments and identify approaches and practices that support inclusive, evidence-based and coordinated international rule-making.

In this regard, the “International Federation of Automatic Control” (IFAC) strongly supports international standards for audit & assurance, ethics, education and public sector accounting. The standards are prepared in an oversight environment focused on the public interest. IFAC is present in more than 130 countries and jurisdictions, representing almost 3 million accountants in public practice, education, government service, industry, and commerce.

IOs and Democracy

Democracy cannot be achieved by simply transferring what works at the national level - institutions and procedures - at international level where there isn’t a generally accepted theory of democracy also because, according to the recent Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, only 20 countries out of 167 are full democracies.

In the last years, populism has advanced in many consolidated as well as in young democracies. As highlighted by the latest Freedom House’s Report, global freedom is experiencing an unprecedented stagnation. For the 13th consecutive year the countries who suffered a retreat outnumbered those who registered a democratic gain.

Thus, nowadays it has become more common to talk about democratic deficit, meaning that not all nations are democratic and / or acknowledging that global decisions are not taken democratically.

Such a lack of legitimacy is inevitably reflected on the state’s opinions and stands in the institutions of the IOs. This is a difficult legal dilemma, that can only be solved if the organizations require their members to be democratic: only building on some kind of legitimacy driven directly from the global demos we can overcome the “states obstacles” which are their inequality and their imperfect democratic representation.

To be considered fully democratic, IOs need to implement various reforms. and to opt for transparent and accountable forms of governance rather than secretive structures and agreements.

Are IOs tools for powerful countries?

In the modern world, relations between states operate at two levels. The first is the bilateral level, the second is the multilateral level. The current nationalism rise as an ideological force in the world suggests that bilateral relations between states are considered more important than having their interests muddled by a multilateral bureaucracy.

States imbue international organizations with power if it serves their strategic ends, but sometimes such organizations are fairly impotent. Even the most vaunted and mighty of the world’s IOs, like the United Nations, have a fairly checkered history when it comes to defending the causes they were created to defend. IOs are products, not drivers, of geopolitics.

And yet, IOs do exist: that dates back to the sclerotic bureaucracies of hulking monarchies which often could not respond fast enough to the demands of their once pliant subjects. At that point, the old political structures were either reformed or discarded.

With the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victors against Napoleon crafted a political settlement designed to ensure peace on the European continent. After World War I, the victors tried to banish the scourge of war by creating the League of Nations which failed. After World War II, the victors created the United Nations. It is not surprising that the universalist impulse to protect the rights of all individuals is strongest after terrible wars, and that the victors invest so much of their own powers into attempting to create structures that prevent future wars or, put more cynically, secure the victors’ position.

For better or worse, nation-states rule the world today. So powerful are nation-states that they can use IOs for their own purposes. IOs can really matter when they are the product of the shared, mutual interests of like-minded states. And multilateral free trade agreements can matter when they codify economic realities that are beneficial for the parties involved.

The 2030 Agenda for “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs)

Last but not least, IOs work towards more effective, inclusive and evidence-based international rule-making as a foundation for the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs).  The 2030 Agenda for SDGs adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth: all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

To achieve the SDGs targets, IOs must ensure that their rule-making activities are fit for sustainable development by making their norms and standards more effective, and their development more inclusive. Surely, increased cooperation among international organizations must be stepped up.