Types of International Organization

Conventional Categories

It is usual to distinguish between three main types of "international organization", namely: inter-governmental organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and multinational enterprises.

2.1 Inter-governmental organizations (IGOs)

The Yearbook of International Organizations, which aims to identify and list all intergovernmental organizations, defines such bodies as:

  • being based on a formal instrument of agreement between the governments of nation states
  • including three or more nation states as parties to the agreement
  • possessing a permanent secretariat performing ongoing tasks

The view of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations concerning intergovernmental organizations is implicit in its Resolution 288 (X) of 27 February 1950:

"Any international organization which is not established by intergovernmental agreement shall be considered as a non-governmental organization for the purpose of these arrangements."

The resolution was concerned with the implementation of Article 71 of the United Nations Charter on consultative status of non-governmental organizations, and it was amplified by Resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 25 June 1968:

"...including organizations which accept members designated by government authorities, provided that such membership does not interfere with the free expression of views of the organizations."

The matter is complicated by the fact that, pursuant to Article 12 of the regulations of the General Assembly of the United Nations (giving effect to Article 102 of the Charter), the Secretariat publishes (in the UN Treaty Series) every instrument submitted to it by a Member State, when "so far as that party is concerned, the instrument is a treaty or an international agreement within the meaning of Article 102" (Note in UN Treaty Series, Vol; 748). The terms "treaty" and "international agreement" have not been defined either in the Charter or in the regulations. Furthermore: "It is the understanding of the Secretariat that its action does not confer on the instrument the status of a treaty or an international agreement if it does not already have that status..." This difficulty is compounded by the delays (often of many years) before a treaty is published in the UN Treaty Series. Further complications arise from:

  • the increasing number of "international agreements" in which one or more of the parties is a constituent state (eg Quebec) of a federal state system (eg Canada). This matter was not resolved by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (Vienna, 1969)
  • bilateralisation of treaties when several states act together to aid another state under a "multilateral" treaty signed by all of them
  • agreements in which one of the parties is itself an intergovernmental organization (thus "multilateralising" the agreement) acting to establish an intergovernmental institute in a particular country (thus "bilateralising" the agreement), of which the government is one of the parties to that agreement (eg many UNESCO agreements with individual developing countries to establish regional research centres)
  • agreements signed on behalf of national government agencies or departments which, in the case of purely technical matters, may not fully engage the state; the resulting organizations may then define themselves as "non-governmental"

In practice therefore, the editors assume that an organization is intergovernmental if it is established by signature of an agreement engendering obligations between governments, whether or not that agreement is eventually published. If any organization declares itself to be non-governmental, it is accepted as such by the editors.

All organizations established by agreements to which three states or more are parties are therefore included. Following the adoption of Resolution 334 (XI) of 20 July 1950 (see Appendix 14), it was agreed with the UN Secretariat in New York that bodies arising out of bilateral agreements should not be included in the Yearbook (although they may be included in Type G or N).

A detailed re-examination of this matter by Singer and Wallace questioned this conventional definition. In particular they argue:

It may be objected, of course, that bilateral organizations should not be included on the grounds that they are not "really" IGOs, as we usually conceive of them because they result from "contractual" rather than "law-making" treaties. There are two points to be made here: One, this objection is met by us in that mere treaties or pacts are excluded by other criteria. We only urge that an organization's bilateral character cannot of itself be grounds for exclusion. Further, such exclusion would not only leave out such important organizations as the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) but would also force us to drop such multilateral organizations as the Rhine Commission when historical circumstances temporarily reduced the membership to two." (2))

Singer and Wallace also consider the distinction between IGOs and NGOs in the case of "mixed" organizations, some of whose delegations are appointed by governmental agencies or ministries and some by private bodies such as corporations. They conclude that

it would be unreasonable to exclude organizations simply because a number of their members were not national states. Instead we adopted the criterion employed by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC): whether or not the organization was created by a formal instrument of agreement between the governments of national states." (2))

There appears to be some conflict here with the ECOSOC definition of a non-governmental organization, namely:

Any international organization which is not established by inter-governmental agreement shall be considered as a non-governmental organization for the purpose of these arrangements, including organizations which accept members designated by government authorities, provided that such membership does not interfere with the free expression of views of the organization." (3))

They also object to the inclusion of associations or confederations of IGOs as constituting additional IGOs on the grounds that such bodies are not independent. They exclude treaties or agreements administered by another international organization (such as the various special unions of the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property). Finally, in cases where two separate IGOs claim jurisdiction over the same domain (eg the Commission européenne du régime du Danube, Rome, and the Danube Commission, Budapest), only the organization "with evident de facto control over the domain" is included.

2.2 International non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

A clear and unambiguous theoretically acceptable definition of international NGOs remains to be formulated. Much research on these bodies is based on those described in the Yearbook of International Organizations. The criterion for inclusion in this volume is based on the ECOSOC definition of NGOs (noted in the above) which however fails to define the meaning to be given to "international organization". The editors of the Yearbook have therefore developed a set of seven rules designed to identify an international NGO in terms of aims, members, structure, officers, finance, autonomy, and activities. The intent has been to include only those bodies oriented to three or more countries.

Skjelsbaek in reviewing the growth of NGOs using the above definition regrets the use of

"a legalistic criterion to distinguish between intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This criterion defines IGOs as organizations established by inter-governmental treaty, as specified in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution of 1950, regardless of the character of their membership. Most but not all IGOs include only governmental members, and in practice many NGOs have both governmental and non-governmental members." (4))

He concludes that the Yearbook list of NGOs is somewhat different from, and more restrictive than, a list of organizations compiled according to minimum criteria for "transnational" which he puts forward, namely: "At least two different countries must be represented in the organization and one of the representatives must not be an agent of a government." The editors of the Yearbook responded in part to these and other pressures in the 1977 edition by splitting the range of international organizations into two groups, the first based on the original criteria and the second on looser criteria, discussed below. They still exclude pure bilateral bodies (eg a "Franco-German" association).

The abbreviation "INGO" tends to be used by the academic community, whereas "NGO" is favoured by the United Nations system. "NGO" tends to be used by the academic community to refer to national NGOs. The organizations themselves, in those few cases where they use the term (rather than a more specific term such as trade union, voluntary agency, etc), use "NGO" and never "INGO". The two are used interchangeably here.

2.3 Multinational enterprises

As with IGOs and NGOs, there is no clear definition of multinational or transnational corporations. A study by the United Nations Secretariat lists many proposed definitions. (5) Much data is available about the several hundred most economically powerful corporations likely to constitute the basis for any list. The editors of the Yearbook of International Organizations have published the results of their survey to determine probable numbers in term of different criteria based on the distribution of subsidiaries between countries (6) and in 1976 published such information as one section of their experimental Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (7).

The controversy, discussed below, over the term to be applied to such bodies goes beyond the issue of whether one or other word is more appropriate for designated entities. Sahlgren notes that

"Even among those using the terms "transnational corporations" or "multinational enterprises", for instance, there is still a wide margin of disagreement as to which entities are or are not included...some would like to see partly or wholly-state owned enterprises excluded from the scope of the term "transnational corporations"...others have argued that such enterprises display characteristics and motivations that are essentially identical with those of privately-owned enterprises." (8)

2.4 Comment on organizational existence

Identification of "international organizations" raises problems concerning what is meant by the "existence" of an organization in terms of different perspectives.

2.4.1 Legal: International non-governmental organizations have no existence in international law. They are organizational "outlaws". One legal study of international organization notes:

"Des associations revêtant les formes d'une organisation internationale peuvent aussi être créés par des personnes de droit privé ou de droit non étatique... Mais, n'étant pas formés par des Etats, ce ne sont pas là des organisations internationales au sens stricte des termes."

Those NGOs recognized by the United Nations under Article 71 of the Charter acquire a measure of legal significance. It is important to note however that NGOs which are recognized as existing by one IGO are not necessarily recognized as existing by another even if both IGOs form part of the UN system. There have also been attempts to extend the interpretation of the status of private persons in international law to cover collectivities (10). It is interesting to note that multinational corporations are "non-governmental organizations" having no existence in international law despite efforts within the framework of the European Economic Community. This creates an embarrassing situation for the United Nations which for political reasons is obliged to examine "international" entities whose legal existence it cannot recognize. (The practical consequence is that the UN unit studying such bodies cannot send a questionnaire to them). Ironically, since the UN Charter does not distinguish between profit-making and non-profit making bodies, the only way that the UN Commission on Transnational Corporations may be able to relate to such bodies is under Article 71 governing relations with NGOs. (11) Within the European Community, at least, this situation may be altered if the recently approved European convention on the recognition of the legal personality of international non-governmental organizations is ratified.

2.4.2 Political: Organizations with a so-called "universal" membership, such as the United Nations, have considerable difficulty in recognizing the existence of "regional" bodies such as the Council of Europe, the OAS, or the OECD and in establishing any working contact with them. (12) This has been due to suspicion within the universal bodies that the regional bodies could only reflect a partisan, political viewpoint which would disturb the delicate balance of power amongst the universal body's membership. Such political reasoning may also be used to reinforce legal arguments concerning NGOs when the suspect organization does not have members from all the countries represented in the universal body. A UNESCO/UNITAR International expert meeting on the study of the role of international organizations in the contemporary world (Geneva, 1976) reluctantly concluded that NGOs were also international organizations but for political reasons could only acknowledge that multinational corporations "engaged in activities which affected international organizations" and therefore such relations could not be neglected, although the corporations could not be considered as a phenomenon in their own right. (The main purpose of the meeting was to specify the contents of a series of textbooks for widespread use).

2.4.3 Impact: Presumably because of a desire to simplify the international system to a point at which it becomes comprehensible and quantifiable, there is a tendency to use a measure of political or economic impact as a means of determining whether to give attention to an organization or organizational category. A body therefore exists to the extent that it has impact. Since many international bodies do not act to have an impact in a manner which would be considered significant to an economist or to a political scientist, they are frequently ignored in studies from such perspectives. For example, Keohane and Nye note that the impact of inter-societal interactions and transnational actors in international affairs has often been ignored both in policy-oriented writings and in more theoretical works, and that when they have been recognized they have often been consigned to the environment of interstate politics, and relatively little attention has been paid to them in their own right or to their connections with the interstate system. (13) Singer and Wallace, for example, are quite explicit about exclusion of NGOs from their analysis: "our interests (and, we suspect, those of most of our colleagues) are more concerned with IGOs than with non-governmental organizations...as an independent variable, one can hardly urge that the amount of NGOs is likely to be important in accounting for many of the theoretically interesting phenomena, which occurred in the system of the past century or so." (2) Proof of impact is therefore required before scholarly attention can be given to the existence of the organizational phenomenon giving rise to that impact. Ironically research and debate on international organizations and their political impact may well be conducted under the auspices of bodies excluded from the categories of the discussion as being without impact. (This leads to an effort on the part of some impact-conscious organizations, such as the Club of Rome, to define themselves as being "non-non-governmental" in order to distinguish themselves from NGOs). A counter-trend has however been stimulated with the publication edited by Keohane and Nye (13) which focuses on a wide variety of transnational interactions, including non-governmental associations, multinational business enterprises, revolutionary movements, cartels, scientific networks, and the like.

2.5 Comment on "transnational" versus "international"

It is still common practice to blur the meaning to be attached to "international organization". It is frequently taken to mean intergovernmental organizations only, although in other cases it may include NGOs but not multinational corporations. Attempts have been made to use "transnational" to clarify the situation. Thus for Keohane and Nye "transnational interactions" describe the movement of tangible or intangible items across state boundaries when at least one actor is not an agent of a government or an inter-governmental organization. (13) They therefore consider that both NGOs and multinational corporations are transnational together with some contemporary revolutionary organizations, and bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Ford Foundation.

In discussing NGOs, Skjelsbaek states that

"For an organization to be "transnational" two minimal requirements must be met: At least two different countries must be represented in the organization and one of the representatives must not be an agent of a government. In practice it would probably be wise to specify that at least one-half of the members of the multilateral organization should not act in governmental capacity." (4))

Judge and Skjelsbaek have attempted to encourage use of "transnational associations" as a substitute for "international NGOs" to distinguish them from other types of transnational organizations. (14) In 1977 the Union of International Associations, following a symposium on transnationality in relation to non-governmental organizations in Geneva in 1976 (15) changed the name of its periodical from International Associations to Transnational Associations.

The situation has however been confused by debate within the United Nations on "multinational corporations" as originally termed by the Secretariat and the business community. The Group of Eminent Persons invited to study their role noted the "strong feeling that transnational would better convey the notion that these firms operate from their home bases across national borders" transcending all forms of individual state control. In arguing in support of a Latin American draft resolution to ECOSOC for a UN focus on "transnational" as opposed to "multinational" corporations the point was made that:

"The term "multinational corporation" had been applied both to enterprises operating in all parts of the world without a home base and to those which had a main office in one country and branches in other countries, for which the term "transnational corporations" was more descriptive. In Latin America enterprises had been established whose concerns were different from those multinational corporations, as normally understood, but whose structures were similar... It would clearly be desirable to use the term "transnational corporations" for enterprises operating from their home bases across national borders and reserve the term "multinational corporations" for those established by agreement between a number of countries and operating in accordance with prescribed conditions."

This debate subsequently led to the establishment by ECOSOC of a "Centre on Transnational Corporations". ( 8 ) "Transnational", for the interstate community, must now bear the many negative connotations originally associated with "multinational" which appears to have been "laundered". The attempt to switch from the existing descriptor for NGOs, which contains a logical negative (with negative connotations in some circumstances (16)), to "transnational" should be assessed with caution now that the latter is acquiring some negative connotations. These are not relieved by the choice of the other term of the descriptor because of problems of translation (eg "corporation" is translated into French as "société", which is used in the titles of many NGOs).