An intergovernmental organization (IGO) or international organization is an organization composed primarily of sovereign states (referred to as member states), or of other intergovernmental organizations. 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 organization and instead rely purely on the parties for their administration becoming legally recognized as an ad hoc commission. Other treaties have established an administrative apparatus which was not deemed to have been granted international legal personality.
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:
- Worldwide or global organizations — generally open to nations worldwide as long as certain criteria are met: This category includes the United Nations (UN) and its specialized agencies, the World Health Organization, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It also includes globally operating intergovernmental organizations that are not an agency of the UN, including for example the Hague Conference on Private International Law, a globally operating intergovernmental organization based in The Hague that pursues the progressive unification of private international law, and the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), a global partnership that unites intergovernmental organizations engaged in research for a food-secured future.
- Cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, or historical organizations — open to members based on some cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, or historical link: Examples include the Commonwealth of Nations, Arab League, Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Community of Portuguese Language Countries, Turkic Council, International Organization of Turkic Culture, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
- Economic organizations — based on macro-economic policy goals: Some are dedicated to free trade and reduction of trade barriers, e.g. World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund. Others are focused on international development. International cartels, such as OPEC, also exist. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was founded as an economic-policy-focused organization. An example of a recently formed economic IGO is the Bank of the South.
- Educational organizations — centered around tertiary-level study. EUCLID University was chartered as a university and umbrella organization dedicated to sustainable development in signatory countries; United Nations University researches pressing global problems that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States.
- Health and Population Organizations — based on common perceived health and population goals. These are formed to address those challenges collectively, for example the intergovernmental partnership for population and development Partners in Population and Development.
- Regional organizations — open to members from a particular continent or other specific region of the world. This category includes the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLACS), Council of Europe (CoE), European Union (EU), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Energy Community, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, African Union (AU), Organization of American States (OAS), Association of Caribbean States (ACS), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Islamic Development Bank, Union of South American Nations, Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Pacific Islands Forum, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO) and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).
Currently, the UN has 193 Member States, and 2 observer states.
The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) is an international financial institution established at the city of Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 1974–75.
While treaties, alliances, and multilateral conferences had existed for centuries, IGOs only began to be established in the 19th century. The first regional international organization was the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine, initiated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
The first international organization of a global nature was the International Telegraph Union (the future International Telecommunication Union), which was founded by the signing of the International Telegraph Convention by 20 countries in May 1865. The ITU also served as a model for other international organizations such as the Universal Postal Union (1874), and the emergence of the League of Nations following World War I, designed as an institution to foster collective security in order to sustain peace, and successor to this the United Nations.
Expansion and growth
Held and McGrew counted thousands of IGOs worldwide in 2002 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. 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Rather than by national jurisdiction, legal accountability is intended to be ensured by legal mechanisms that are internal to the intergovernmental organization itself 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.  Otherwise, the organizations’ immunities may be put in question in national and international courts.  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.
The immunities also extend to employment law. In this regard, immunity from national jurisdiction necessitates that reasonable alternative means are available to effectively protect employees’ rights; 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.
Strengths and weaknesses
These are some of the strengths and weaknesses of IGOs.
- They hold state authority.
- Their institutions are permanent.
- They provide a forum for discussion.
- They are issue-specific.
- They provide information.
- They allow multilateral co-operation.
- Membership is limited. IGOs’ legal basis prohibit membership of private citizens, making them undemocratic. In addition, not all IGOs allow universal state membership.
- IGOs often overlap resulting in a overly complex network.
- States have to give up part of their sovereignty, which weakens the states’ ability to assert authority.
- Inequality among state members creates biases and can lead powerful states to misuse these organizations.
They can be deemed unfair as countries with a higher percentage voting power have the right to veto any decision that is not in their favor, leaving the smaller countries powerless.
- List of intergovernmental organizations
- List of organizations with .int domain names
- List of supranational environmental agencies
- International organisations in Europe
- International trade/Index of international trade topics
- International financial institutions
- Non-aggression pact
- Supranational aspects of international organizations
- Supranational union
- Trade bloc
- World government