Thursday, August 9, 2007

Conference: The Law of International Organizations: Between Independence and Accountability

Leiden University's Faculty of Law will host a conference on The Law of International Organizations: Between Independence and Accountability, October 12-13, 2007, in Leiden. The program is here. Why attend?

When in the 19th century the first international organizations were created, they were first of all seen as practical platforms for interstate cooperation wherever the need arose. Organizations such as the first river commissions, the Universal Postal Union and the International Telegraph Union were not so much conceived as independent actors but rather as quasi permanent institutional frameworks where ad hoc conference diplomacy was no longer sufficient. But after the First World War, in particular after the creation of the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization, it became clear that international organizations had to be taken more seriously as new phenomena in international law and international relations. New questions emerged in practice: do international organizations have the capacity to conclude treaties? Are privileges and immunities of staff of international organizations different from those of diplomats? Legal doctrine increasingly paid attention to these new phenomena and to new questions that came with them.

During and after the Second World War a number of new international organizations were created: universal organizations such as the United Nations and the specialized agencies, regional organizations, organizations for specific fields of cooperation such as collective self-defence or commodity trade. It was recognized that international organizations could not perform their functions without having a status independent from their sovereign members. A substantial acquis institutionnel was developed in the law and practice of international organizations. Parts of this acquis are the acceptance of the separate legal personality of international organizations and the independence of their secretariats and staff.

In particular since the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, new perspectives for international cooperation emerged and international organizations could increasingly use their powers. Within Europe, new steps were made in European integration with the creation of the European Union. The United Nations created more peacekeeping operations than ever before. New organizations were created, such as the World Trade Organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Criminal Court. However, this new dynamism did not only bring successes. Still in the 1980s, the International Tin Council collapsed. In the 1990s the UN was unable to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and in Srebrenica. The need for international organizations to be accountable for their work became more prominent; existing accountability mechanisms were no longer considered sufficient. In 2002, the International Law Commission started its work on the topic of responsibility of international organizations.

In addressing these developments, this two-day Leiden conference will pay particular attention to the requirements of independence and accountability of international organizations. Do rules relating to the independence of international organizations (such as those on immunity from jurisdiction) hamper the development of accountability rules and mechanisms? Or do they protect organizations against improper interference in their work by members under the guise of accountability? Does the present quest for accountability of organizations threaten their independence? Or does greater accountability increase confidence in the work of organizations and is it a conditio sine qua non for preserving their independence?

The Leiden conference will bring together academics and practitioners active in this area of public international law. All too often these two groups prove to interact insufficiently. Yet, for a proper understanding of the evolution of practice academics should not close their eyes for evolving realities, while a better understanding of theory will enhance the practitioners’ skills in analysis and prudent decision-making. The conference therefore aims to benefit from both the fruits of scholarly research and the insights of practical experience.

The first part of the conference will focus on research. To what extent does the changing international environment affect the way in which academics approach international organizations? In this respect it is not a coincidence that the conference is organized exactly fifty years after Henry G. Schermers defended his dissertation on the specialized agencies. Schermers rapidly became one of the pioneers in the area of international institutional law. It is interesting to recall that Schermers in 1957 compared the specialized agencies to embryonic ministries of a non existent world government. It is obvious that the position of international organizations, including the specialized agencies, has changed in the last five decades. How are these changes reflected in the work of leading contemporary authors on international institutional law? What are challenges for the future? Is there a future for this field of law?

The second part of the conference (Friday afternoon) will concentrate on the present work of the UN International Law Commission relating to the issue of "Responsibility of International Organizations". ILC Rapporteur Gaja will give his views on the present state of affairs of this work and will discuss important outstanding questions.

In the third part of the Conference (Saturday morning) some legal advisers of international organizations will shed a light on their work. To what extent has the position and the work of the legal adviser changed? To what extent is he or she in practice confronted with questions relating to independence and accountability? To what extent does the legal adviser of an international organization take into account how questions with which he is confronted are dealt with by colleagues in other organizations?

There are various concrete issues where the requirements of independence and accountability play a role. One of the most prominent and difficult examples is in the area of UN peace operations, to be discussed in the fourth and final part of the conference (Saturday afternoon). Who is responsible for human rights and humanitarian law violations in such operations: the organization, the members, or both? How to deal with accountability gaps that may exist? If the organization is in principle responsible, how to implement such responsibility in practice?