International organization

An international organization, also known as an intergovernmental organization or an international institution, is an organization that is established by a treaty or other type of instrument governed by international law and possesses its own legal personality, such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, International Union for Conservation of Nature, and NATO.[2][3] International organizations are composed of primarily member states, but may also include other entities, such as other international organizations, firms, and nongovernmental organizations.[4] Additionally, entities (including states) may hold observer status.[5] An alternative definition is that an international organization is a stable set of norms and rules meant to govern the behavior of states and other actors in the international system.[6][7][4]

The offices of the United Nations in Geneva (Switzerland), which is the city that hosts the highest number of international organizations in the world[1]

Notable examples include the United Nations (UN), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Council of Europe (COE), International Labour Organization (ILO), International Criminal Court, and International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).[8]



Scottish law professor James Lorimer has been credited with coining the term "international organization" in a 1871 article in the Revue de Droit International et de Legislation Compare.[9] Lorimer use the term frequently in his two-volume Institutes of the Law of Nations (1883, 1884). Other early uses of the term were by law professor Walther Schucking in works published in 1907, 1908 and 1909, and by political science professor Paul S. Reinsch in 1911.[9] In 1935, Pitman B. Potter defined international organization as "an association or union of nations established or recognized by them for the purpose of realizing a common end". He distinguished between bilateral and multilateral organizations on one end and customary or conventional organizations on the other end.[10] In his 1922 book An Introduction to the Study of International Organization, Potter argued that international organization was distinct from "international intercourse" (all relations between states), "international law" (which lacks enforcement) and world government.[11]

International Organizations are sometimes referred to as intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), to clarify the distinction from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), which are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate internationally. These include international nonprofit organizations such as the World Organization of the Scout Movement, International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as lobby groups that represent the interests of multinational corporations.

IGOs are established by a treaty that acts as a charter creating the group. Treaties are formed when lawful representatives (governments) of several states go through a ratification process, providing the IGO with an international legal personality. Intergovernmental organizations are an important aspect of public international law.

Intergovernmental organizations in a legal sense should be distinguished from simple groupings or coalitions of states, such as the G7 or the Quartet. Such groups or associations have not been founded by a constituent document and exist only as task groups. Intergovernmental organizations must also be distinguished from treaties. Many treaties (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade before the establishment of the World Trade Organization) do not establish an independent secretariat and instead rely on the parties for their administration, for example by setting up a joint committee. Other treaties have established an administrative apparatus which was not deemed to have been granted binding legal authority.[12] The broader concept wherein relations among three or more states are organized according to certain principles they hold in common is multilateralism.[13]

Types and purpose


Intergovernmental organizations differ in function, membership, and membership criteria. They have various goals and scopes, often outlined in the treaty or charter. Some IGOs developed to fulfill a need for a neutral forum for debate or negotiation to resolve disputes. Others developed to carry out mutual interests with unified aims to preserve peace through conflict resolution and better international relations, promote international cooperation on matters such as environmental protection, to promote human rights, to promote social development (education, health care), to render humanitarian aid, and to economic development. Some are more general in scope (the United Nations) while others may have subject-specific missions (such as INTERPOL or the International Telecommunication Union and other standards organizations). Common types include:

Regional organizations


In regional organizations like the European Union, African Union, NATO, ASEAN and Mercosur, there are restrictions on membership due to factors such as geography or political regimes. To enter the European Union (EU), the states require different criteria; member states need to be European, liberal-democratic political system, and be a capitalist economy.[14]

The oldest regional organization is the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna.

Participation and involvement


There are several different reasons a state may choose membership in an intergovernmental organization. But there are also reasons membership may be rejected.

Reasons for participation:

  • Economic rewards: In the case of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), membership in the free trade agreement benefits the parties' economies. For example, Mexican companies are given better access to U.S. markets due to their membership. External actors can also contribute to economic rewards and fuel the attractiveness of IGOs - notably for developing countries. For example, external donor funding from the European Union to IGOs in the Global South.[15]
  • Political influence: Smaller countries, such as Portugal and Belgium, who do not carry much political clout on the international stage, are given a substantial increase in influence through membership in IGOs such as the European Union. Also for countries with more influence such as France and Germany, IGOs are beneficial as the nation increases influence in the smaller countries' internal affairs and expanding other nations dependence on themselves, so to preserve allegiance.
  • Security: Membership in an IGO such as NATO gives security benefits to member countries. This provides an arena where political differences can be resolved.
  • Democracy: It has been noted that member countries experience a greater degree of democracy and those democracies survive longer.

Reasons for rejecting membership:

  • Loss of sovereignty: Membership often comes with a loss of state sovereignty as treaties are signed that require co-operation on the part of all member states.
  • Insufficient benefits: Often membership does not bring about substantial enough benefit to warrant membership in the organization.
  • Attractive external options: Bilateral co-operation with external actors or competing IGOs may provide more attractive (external) policy options for member states. Thus, powerful external actors may undermine existing IGOs.[15]

Privileges and immunities


Intergovernmental organizations are provided with privileges and immunities that are intended to ensure their independent and effective functioning. They are specified in the treaties that give rise to the organization (such as the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and the Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Criminal Court), which are normally supplemented by further multinational agreements and national regulations (for example the International Organizations Immunities Act in the United States). The organizations are thereby immune from the jurisdiction of national courts. Certain privileges and immunities are also specified in the Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Organizations of a Universal Character of 1975,.[16] which however has so far not been signed by 35 states and is thus not yet in force (status: 2022).[17]

Rather than by national jurisdiction, legal accountability is intended to be ensured by legal mechanisms that are internal to the intergovernmental organization itself[18] and access to administrative tribunals. In the course of many court cases where private parties tried to pursue claims against international organizations, there has been a gradual realization that alternative means of dispute settlement are required as states have fundamental human rights obligations to provide plaintiffs with access to court in view of their right to a fair trial.[19][20]: 77  Otherwise, the organizations' immunities may be put in question in national and international courts.[20]: 72  Some organizations hold proceedings before tribunals relating to their organization to be confidential, and in some instances have threatened disciplinary action should an employee disclose any of the relevant information. Such confidentiality has been criticized as a lack of transparency.[21]

The immunities also extend to employment law.[22][23] In this regard, immunity from national jurisdiction necessitates that reasonable alternative means are available to effectively protect employees' rights;[24] in this context, a first instance Dutch court considered an estimated duration of proceedings before the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization of 15 years to be too long.[25] An international organization does not pay taxes, is difficult to prosecute in court and is not obliged to provide information to any parliament.[26]


The United Nations focuses on five main areas: "maintaining peace and security, protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, supporting sustainable development, and upholding international law".[27] UN agencies, such as UN Relief and Works Agency, are generally regarded as international organizations in their own right. Additionally, the United Nations has Specialized Agencies, which are organizations within the United Nations System that have their member states (often nearly identical to the UN Member States) and are governed independently by them; examples include international organizations that predate the UN, such as the International Telecommunication Union, and the Universal Postal Union, as well as organizations that were created after the UN such as the World Health Organization (which was made up of regional organizations such as PAHO that predated the UN). A few UN special agencies are very centralized in policy and decision-making, but some are decentralized; for example, the country-based projects or missions' directors and managers can decide what they want to do in the fields.[28]

The UN agencies have a variety of tasks based on their specialization and their interests. The UN agencies provide different kinds of assistance to low-income countries and middle-income countries, and this assistance would be a good resource for developmental projects in developing countries. The UN has to protect against any kind of human rights violation, and in the UN system, some specialized agencies, like ILO and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), work in the human rights' protection fields.[29] The UN agency, ILO, is trying to end any kind of discrimination in the work field and child labor; after that, this agency promotes fundamental labor rights and to get safe and secure for the laborers.[30]



An early prominent example of an international organization is the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815, which was an international diplomatic conference to reconstitute the European political order after the downfall of the French Emperor Napoleon. States then became the main decision makers who preferred to maintain their sovereignty as of 1648 at the Westphalian treaty that closed the 30 Years' War in Europe.

The first and oldest international organization—being established employing a treaty, and creating a permanent secretariat, with a global membership—was the International Telecommunication Union (founded in 1865). The first general international organization—addressing a variety of issues—was the League of Nations, founded on 10 January 1920 with a principal mission of maintaining world peace after World War I. The United Nations followed this model after World War II. This was signed on 26 June 1945, in San Francisco, at the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, and came into force on 24 October 1945.[31] Currently, the UN is the main IGO with its arms such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the General Assembly (UNGA), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Secretariat (UNSA), the Trusteeship Council (UNTC) and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Other IGOs include Regional Councils like ICES and the Mediterranean Science Commission (CIESM), and continental blocks like the European Union (EU), African Union (AU), East African Community (EAC), and Multi- National Companies (MNCs) like SHELL.

Expansion and growth


Held and McGrew counted thousands of IGOs worldwide in 2002[32] and this number continues to rise. This may be attributed to globalization, which increases and encourages the co-operation among and within states and which has also provided easier means for IGO growth as a result of increased international relations. This is seen economically, politically, militarily, as well as on the domestic level. Economically, IGOs gain material and non-material resources for economic prosperity. IGOs also provide more political stability within the state and among differing states.[33] Military alliances are also formed by establishing common standards in order to ensure security of the members to ward off outside threats. Lastly, the formation has encouraged autocratic states to develop into democracies in order to form an effective and internal government.[34]

Some estimates indicate that the number of IGOs in the world has increased from less than 100 in 1949 to about 350 in 2000.[35][36]

See also



  1. ^ (in French) François Modoux, "La Suisse engagera 300 millions pour rénover le Palais des Nations", Le Temps, Friday 28 June 2013, p. 9.
  2. ^ Gaja, Giorgio (9 December 2011). "Articles on the Responsibility of International Organisations". Audiovisual Library of International Law. United Nations - Office of Legal Affairs. Retrieved 21 August 2019.
  3. ^ Bouwhuis, Stephen (1 January 2012). "The International Law Commission's Definition of International Organizations". International Organizations Law Review. 9 (2): 451–465. doi:10.1163/15723747-00902004. ISSN 1572-3747.
  4. ^ a b Koremenos, Barbara; Lipson, Charles; Snidal, Duncan (2001). "The Rational Design of International Institutions" (PDF). International Organization. 55 (4): 761–799. doi:10.1162/002081801317193592. ISSN 0020-8183. JSTOR 3078615. S2CID 41593236. Archived (PDF) from the original on 22 April 2023.
  5. ^ "International Organizations - Research Guide International Law". Peace Palace Library. Archived from the original on 13 May 2020. Retrieved 21 August 2019.
  6. ^ Simmons, Beth; Martin, Lisa (2002). "International Organizations and Institutions". Handbook of International Relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. p. 94.
  7. ^ Duffield, John (2007). "What Are International Institutions?". International Studies Review. 9 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2486.2007.00643.x. ISSN 1521-9488. S2CID 29990247.
  8. ^ "Intergovernmental organizations having received a standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly and maintaining permanent offices at Headquarters." United Nations Department of Public Information, United Nations Secretariat.
  9. ^ a b Potter, Pitman B. (1945). "Origin of the Term International Organization". American Journal of International Law. 39 (4): 803–806. doi:10.1017/S0002930000140515. ISSN 0002-9300.
  10. ^ Potter, Pitman B. (1935). "The Classification of International Organizations, I". American Political Science Review. 29 (2): 215. doi:10.2307/1947502. ISSN 0003-0554. JSTOR 1947502. S2CID 251095046.
  11. ^ Potter, Pitman B. (1922). Introduction to the Study of International Organization. The Century Company. pp. 1–5. ISBN 978-1-4067-2003-7. Archived from the original on 1 March 2024.
  12. ^ Roger, Charles B.; Rowan, Sam S. (2022). "Analyzing international organizations: How the concepts we use affect the answers we get" (PDF). The Review of International Organizations. 17 (3): 597–625. doi:10.1007/s11558-021-09432-2. hdl:10230/49072. ISSN 1559-744X. S2CID 255317045.
  13. ^ Lavelle, Kathryn C. (2020). The Challenges of Multilateralism. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-25232-3. OCLC 1149484630.
  14. ^ Yesilada, Birol A. (2002). "Turkey's Candidacy for EU Membership". Middle East Journal. 56 (1): 94–111. ISSN 0026-3141. JSTOR 4329722.
  15. ^ a b Muntschick, Johannes, ed. (2022). Regionalism in Africa and External Partners: Uneven Relationships and (Un)Intended Effects. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-031-10702-3. ISBN 978-3-031-10701-6. S2CID 252751858.
  16. ^ "Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Organizations of a Universal Character. Vienna, 14 March 1975" (PDF). Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  17. ^ "Status: Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Organizations of a Universal Character. Vienna, 14 March 1975". Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  18. ^ Parish, Matthew (2010). "An essay on the accountability of international organizations". International Organizations Law Review. 7 (2): 277–342. doi:10.1163/157237410X543332. SSRN 1651784.
  19. ^ Heitz, André (November 2005). "UN Special number 645". Archived from the original on 19 October 2013. The French court said... The right to a day in court prevails over jurisdictional immunity
  20. ^ a b Reinisch, August; Weber, Ulf Andreas (2004). "In the shadow of Waite and Kennedy – the jurisdictional immunity of international organizations, the individual's right of access to the courts and administrative tribunals as alternative means of dispute settlement". International Organizations Law Review. 1 (1): 59–110. doi:10.1163/1572374043242330. Pdf. Archived 2013-10-19 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ The success of which we cannot speak Archived 2013-10-19 at the Wayback Machine,, 11 September 2013
  22. ^ Reinisch, August (July 2008). "The immunity of international organizations and the jurisdiction of their administrative tribunals". Chinese Journal of International Law. 7 (2): 285–306. doi:10.1093/chinesejil/jmn020.
  23. ^ "Van der Peet vs. Germany". Archived from the original on 19 October 2013. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
  24. ^ Waite and Kennedy v. Germany (1999) Archived 2013-08-25 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ EPO: no immunity in labor cases? Archived 2013-10-19 at the Wayback Machine,, 27 August 2013
  26. ^ "International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD): Die Migrations-Manager" (in German). 19 May 2023. Retrieved 9 June 2023.
  27. ^ Nations, United. "Our Work". United Nations. Retrieved 7 May 2022.
  28. ^ Alesani, Daniele (17 December 2013). "International Institutions. Classification and main characteristics". Management of International Institutions and NGOs: Frameworks, practices and challenges. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 9780415706650.
  29. ^ Blyth-Kubota, Fiona (16 April 1992). "Specialised Agencies and Other United Nations Organs Working in the Field of Human Rights". Nordic Journal of International Law. 61–62 (1–4): 193–195. doi:10.1163/15718107-90000022. ISSN 0902-7351.
  30. ^ The ILO at Work, 24 March 2021, retrieved 7 May 2022
  31. ^ Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice
  32. ^ Held and McGrew, 2002: Introduction, pp. 1–21
  33. ^ Lundgren, Magnus (2016). "Which type of international organizations can settle civil wars?". Review of International Organizations. 12 (4): 613–641. doi:10.1007/s11558-016-9253-0. S2CID 152898046.
  34. ^ Shannon, Megan. "The Expansion of International Organizations" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hilton Chicago and the Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, IL, Sep 02, 2004 <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 [1] Archived 2009-11-25 at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ Keohane, Robert O. (11 May 2020). "Understanding Multilateral Institutions in Easy and Hard Times". Annual Review of Political Science. 23 (1): 1–18. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050918-042625. ISSN 1094-2939.
  36. ^ Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, Mette (1 April 2020). "Death of international organizations. The organizational ecology of intergovernmental organizations, 1815–2015". The Review of International Organizations. 15 (2): 339–370. doi:10.1007/s11558-018-9340-5. hdl:1814/60598. ISSN 1559-744X.

Further reading

  • Barnett, Michael and Finnemore, M. 2004. Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics. Cornell University Press.
  • Hurd, Ian. 2018. International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Lall, Ranjit. 2017. "Beyond Institutional Design: Explaining the Performance of International Organizations." International Organization 53: 699–732.
  • Lall, Ranjit. 2023. Making International Institutions Work: The Politics of Performance. Cambridge University Press.
  • Lavelle, Kathryn C. (2020): The Challenges of Multilateralism. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300230451.
  • Muntschick, Johannes, ed. (2022): Regionalism in Africa and External Partners. Uneven Relationships and (Un)Intended Effects. Cham: Palgrave. doi:10.1007/978-3-031-10702-3.
  • Claude, Inis L. Jr. (1964) [1959]. Swords into Plowshares: The problems and progress of international organization (3rd ed.). New York: Random House. OCLC 559717722.
  • Datasets:
    • Pevehouse, Jon C.W., Timothy Nordstron, Roseanne W McManus, Anne Spencer Jamison, "Tracking Organizations in the World: The Correlates of War IGO Version 3.0 datasets", Journal of Peace Research.
    • Roger, Charles., Sam Rowan, "The New Terrain of Global Governance: Mapping Membership in Informal International Organizations.", Journal of Conflict Resolution, 67 (6): 281–310.
    • Lundgren, Magnus; Squatrito, Theresa; Sommerer, Thomas; Tallberg, Jonas (2023). "Introducing the Intergovernmental Policy Output Dataset (IPOD)". The Review of International Organizations.
    • Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, Mette (2021-03). "What kills international organisations? When and why international organisations terminate". European Journal of International Relations. 27 (1).