To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
Are international organizations (IOs) keeping pace with ever-changing demands on their mandates, with the needs of a growing and increasingly diversified membership, and with constantly shifting global realities? We often assume that public international organizations are slow to adapt and that they lag behind in meeting the demands of their constituencies. As Stephen Mathias, Lisa Tabassi, Kimberly Prost, and August Reinisch artfully illustrated, however, such assumptions are put into question by the realities of IOs on the ground.
Adaptation and innovation occur on many levels. As Mathias explained, IOs adapt by re-interpreting their functions within the international legal order, taking their cues from the ICJ’s doctrine of implied powers, for example, or adopting broad and innovative interpretations of Article I of the UN Charter. They also adapt to accommodate demands for reform from their constituencies. For example, Prost recounted how, in the face of serious criticism, the UN undertook deep reform of its sanctions regime. This reform was effected through the establishment of a largely independent ombuds(wo)man who is responsible for reviewing and recommending action based on petitions from individuals and entities seeking removal from the list non-state actors subject to UN sanctions (asset freeze, travel bans, arms embargo) under SC Res. 1267 and 1390. This innovation served to fill an institutional gap in the sanctions regime between “soldiers and statements.”
IOs adapt in the course of implementing programs, as well, for example when deciding who to support when, and whether and how to withdraw support, and with what other bodies to collaborate. Adaptation can be led by IO executives, member states, and individual officers, including lawyers tasked with supporting programmatic innovations while remaining compliant with foundational documents.
As Tabassi showed, pressing humanitarian need is a powerful justification for moving away from the strict application of IO mandates, and in particular for forging innovative partnerships and information sharing strategies to accelerate and deepen interventions. As a non-treaty based governmental organization, Tabassi’s own institution, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has repeatedly had to adapt in order to procure supplies for its missions and extend privileges and immunities coverage to its staff.
Thus IOs often operate as autonomous actors in their own right, independently developing and adapting rules, implementation frameworks, and programs in response to shifting international landscapes. However, as Reinisch highlighted in his concluding remarks, IO independence is neither uncomplicated nor uncontroversial. Rather, it is a feature of IO reality that can be in tension with the “publicness” of inter-governmental institutions. He emphasized that, just as IOs are constantly adapting, so too should the legal scholarship on IOs adapt to better identify the issues that these institutions currently face. Such issues include the challenges of autonomy and the implications of transitioning away from law-making (via treaties) toward disseminating customary international law. They also include the shift from creating obligations to becoming the subjects of obligations—the source of which is not always clear.
Sarah Dadush is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Law and Co-Chair of the ASIL International Organizations Interest Group.