08 April 2012 Written by  Mizanie Abate and Alemayehu Tilahun

The Historical development of international organizations

The development of international organizations has been, in the main, a response to the evident need arising from international intercourse rather than to the philosophical or ideological appeal of the notion of world government. The growth of international intercourse, in the sense of the development of relations between different peoples, was a constant feature of maturing civilizations; advances in the mechanics of communications combined with the desire for trade to produce a degree of intercourse which ultimately called for regulation by institutional means.

The institution of the consul, an official of the State whose essential task was to watch over the interests of the citizens of this State engaged in commerce in a foreign port, was known to the Greeks and the Romans. It survives to this day as one of the less spectacular, but important, institutions of international law.The consul was not, however, concerned with representing his state as such, and for this purpose ambassadors were used, being dispatched for the purpose of a specific negotiation. By the fifteenth century this intermittent diplomacy had been replaced in the relations of certain of the Italian States by the institution of a permanent diplomatic ambassador in the capital of the receiving State, and the practice of exchanging ambassadors, complete with staff and embassy premises, is now a normal (albeit not compulsory ) feature of relations between states. Consular and Diplomatic institutions can be found the origins of the subsequent and more complex institutions.

Although embryonic forms of international organizations have been present throughout recorded history, for instance, in the form of the so called amphictyonic councils of ancient Greece, the late-medieval Hanseatic League or such precursors as the Swiss Confederation and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, it was not until the nineteenth century that .international organizations as we know them today were first established. Moreover, it was not until the nineteenth century that the international system of states (at least within Europe) had become sufficiently stable to allow those states to seek forms of cooperation.

Situations soon arose in which the essentially bilateral relationships established by diplomatic embassies or missions were inadequate. For example, a problem would arise which concerned not two but many States, and whether what was proposed was a series of negotiations or even a formal treaty, there had to be found a means for representing the interests of all the states concerned.

The means was the international conference, a gathering of representatives from several states; simply diplomacy writ large. The peace of Westphalia in 1648 emanated from such a conference, as did the settlement after the Napoleonic wars in 1815 through the congress of Vienna and, even later, the post-1918 settlement negotiated at the Paris conference of 1919 and embodied in the Treaty of Versailles. After the watershed Westphalian peace of 1648, international so-called congresses’ had become a regular mode of diplomacy: whenever a problem arose, a conference was convened to discuss it and, if possible at all takes steps towards a solution. After the defeat of Napoleon, a new development took place.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 had seen the initiation of the “concert system” which, for the purposes of any study of international organization, constituted a significant development. As sponsored by the Czar Alexander I, what was envisaged was an alliance of the victorious powers pledged to conduct diplomacy according to ethical standards, which would convene at congresses held at regular intervals. In fact, four congresses were held between 1818 and 1822 - at Aix-la-Chappelle (1818), at Troppau and Laibach (1820, 1821), and at Verona (1822) - but the idea of regular congresses was later abandoned and meetings took place as occasion required. The attempt to secure regular meetings was, however, a significant recognition that the “Pace” of international relations demanded some institutions for regular multilateral negotiations.

Moreover, the Congress of Vienna (1815) and its aftermath launched some other novelties as well, the most remarkable of which was perhaps the creation of a supranational military force under the command of Wellington.

Clearly, any general post war settlement demanded a more general participation in the negations than could easily be achieved via the traditional methods of diplomatic intercourse. Bilateral negation also proved inadequate for other problems of a general nature. The congress of Berlin of 1871 was convened to consider the Russian repudiation of the regime for the Black Sea which had earlier been established at the Paris Conference of 1856; conferences met in Berlin in 1884 and 1885 to attempt to regulate the “Scramble for Africa” which led to commercial rivalry and political antagonism between the European powers. The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 were an effort to secure, on a multilateral basis, agreement on different aspects of the law relating to the conduct of warfare on land and on the sea, and on the duties of neutral states.

The peace conferences of The Hague had given the small sates a taste for international activism: in particular the 1970 conference approached universal participation, with forty-four states being represented. Moreover, due in part to its near-universal participation, organizational experiments took place, one of them being that recommendations (so-called ‘voeux’) of the conference were passed by a majority vote, instead of unanimity.

The “concert of Europe” remained a quasi- institutionalized system even after the Holy Alliance had broken up, until the First World War destroyed the balance of power on which it rested (or rather confirmed its demise); the London conferences of 1912-13, at the end of the Balkan Wars, were the last conferences or congresses convened within the framework of the “concert system.” The conclusion of a conference would normally be accompanied by a formal treaty or convention, or, where no such binding agreement was desired or obtainable, by a memorandum or minutes of the conference.

The disadvantages of this system of ad hoc conferences were, first, that for each new problem which arose a new conference had to be convened, generally upon the initiative of one of the states concerned. The necessity of convening each conference anew complicated and delayed international co-operation in dealing with the problem. Second, the conferences were not debating forms in the same way as the later assemblies of the League and the United Nations; delegations attended very much for the purposes of delivering statements of State policy and, though concessions were often made, the conferences had a rigidity which disappeared in the later ”Permanent” assemblies of the League and the United Nations. Third, the conferences were held by invitation of the sponsoring or host state; there was no principle of membership which conferred an automatic right to representation. Fourth, the conferences adhered to the strict rule of state equality, with the consequence that all states had an equal vote and all decisions required unanimity. As will presently be shown, there are matters in which it is necessary to subjugate the will of the minority to that of the majority if progress is to be made, and the unanimity rule represented a serious restriction on the powers of the ad hoc conference.

It might also be said to be a disadvantage of the conference system that, as a political body, the conference was not ideally suited to the determination of legal questions. There were many cases in which the issues before a conference, although of a primarily political character, involved questions of law, of the rights or duties of the states under international law. The Paris conference of 1856 and the Berlin Conference of 1871, in dealing with the regime in the Black Sea, dealt very largely with legal issues. However, it must be remembered that there existed side by side with the conference system the traditional means of solving legal disputes, by mediation, conciliation or arbitration although there was in this field, as in the field of political settlement, an  equal need  for the creation of some permanent machinery. It is also unlikely that a rigid separation between” Political” and “legal” questions can ever be achieved so as to allocate the latter exclusively to judicial tribunals; politics are rarely “pure” and political matters do not cease to be such because they involve legal rights.

However inadequate the system of ad hoc conferences was for the solution of the political problems arising from international intercourse, it was even more inadequate for the regulation of the relations between groups of people in different countries arising from their common interests. The nineteenth century saw, therefore, an impassive development of associations or unions, international in character, between groups other than governments. This was followed by similar developments between governments themselves in the administrative rather than the political field.

The private International unions or associations sprang from the realization by non-governmental bodies, whether private individuals or corporate associations, that their interests had an international character which demanded the furtherance of those interests via a permanent international association with like bodies in other countries. In those fields where co-operation between governments became imperative, there developed the public international unions; these were, in fact, an essay into international organization in the administrative sphere. The transition from private to public organizations was gradual, and no generally accepted definition of the public international union has over been reached. in general. However, they were permanent associations of governments or administrations based upon a treaty of a multilateral rather than a bilateral type and with some definite criterion of purpose.

Finally, the nineteenth century saw the creation of such intuitions as the Rhine Commission, in order to deal with issues of navigation, or issues of pollution, on a regular basis. Following the establishment of the Rhine Commission in 1915, a number of other river commissions were established -managing the Elbe (1821), the Douro (1835) the Po (1849) - and, after the end of the Crimean War, the European Commission for the Danube in 1856. At roughly the same time, organizations started to be established by private citizens, in order to deal with international issues. Thus, in 1840, the world Anti-Slavery Convention was established, and in 1863 a Swiss philanthropist, Henry Dunant, Created the Red Cross.


The rise of modern organizations

It became clear that in many areas, international cooperation was not only required, but also possible. True enough, states were sovereign and powerful, but, as the river commissions showed, they could sometimes sacrifice some of there sovereign prerogatives in order to facilitate the management of common problems.

The most obvious area in which international cooperation may be required is perhaps that of transport and communication as indicated by the creation of those river commissions. Regulation of other modes of transport and communication quickly followed: in 1865 the international Telegraphic Union was established, followed in 1874 by the universal postal Union and in 1890 by the international Union of Railway Freight Transportation.

Still other areas did not lag considerably behind: in 1903 the International  Office of Public Health was created, and in the field of economics the establishment of the Metric Union (1875), the International Copyright Union (1886), the International Sugar Union (1902 ) and the International Institute for Agriculture (1905) may be mentioned as early forerunners of present-day international organization. Indeed, some of these are still in existence, albeit under a different name and on the basis of a different constituent treaty: there runs a direct connection, for example, from the early international institute for Agriculture to today’s FAO. Slowly but surely, more and more international organizations became established, so much so that public international law gradually transformed (or is said to be gradually transforming) from a law of co-existence to a law of cooperation. Many of the substantive fields of public international law are no loner geared merely to delimiting the spheres of influence of the various states, but are rather geared towards establishing more or less permanent mechanisms for cooperation. Around the turn of the twentieth century it appeared indeed to be common knowledge that the organization of interstate cooperation had become well accepted in international law.

The major breakthrough for international organization however, would be the year 1919 and the Versailles peace Settlement which followed the First World War. On 8 January 1918, US president Woodrow Wilson made his famous ‘fourteen points’ Speech, in which he called for the creation of a “general association of nations.  Under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

Wilson’s plea was carried on the waves of public opium in many states and would lead to the formation of the League of Nations. And not only that: the international Labor Organization was also established at the 1919 peace Conference.

The League of Nations was the first international organization which was designed not just to organization operation between sates in areas which some have referred to as ‘low politics’, such as transport and communication, or the more mundane aspects of economic co-operation as exemplified by the Metric Union, but to have as its specific aims to guarantee peace and the establishment of a system of collective security, following which an attack against one of the member-states of the League would give the rest the right to come to the attacked state’s  rescue.

The League failed in its own overriding purpose: preventing war. On the ruins of the Second World War the urge to organize was given a new impetus. As early as August 1941, American president Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill had conceded the Atlantic Charter, a declaration of principles which would serve as the basis, first, for a declaration of the wartime allies, and later, after the State Department had overcome President Roosevelt’s initial reluctance to commit himself to the creation of a post-War organization, for the Charter of the United Nations.

Also during the war, in 1944, the future of economic cooperation was mapped in Bretton Woods, where agreement was reached on the need to cooperate on monetary and trade issues, eventually leading to the creation of the international monetary Fund and the General Agreement on tariffs and Trade, among others.

The resurrection of the largest battlefield of the Second World War, Europe, also came accompanied by the rise of a number of organizations. The Council of Europe was a first attempt, born out of Churchill’s avowed desire to create the United States of Europe, so that Europe could become an important power alongside the US and the UK. To channel the American Marshall aid, the Organization for European Economic co-operation was created (In 1960 transformed into the Organization for Economic co-operation and Development),  and a relatively small number of European states started a unique experiment when, in 1951, they created the supranational European Coal and Steel Community, some years later followed by the European economic Community and the European community For atomic Energy, all three of which have now been subsumed into the European Union. The northern and western states that remained outside would later create an alternative in the form of the European Free Trade Area, while the state-run economies of the east replied with the creation of the council for mutual Economic Assistance (usually referred to as Comecon).

The influence of the Cold War also made it felt through military cooperation in Europe. Western Europe saw the creation of the Pact of Brussels (which later became the Western European Union) and the North Atlantic treaty Organization. Eastern Europe saw the creation of the Warsaw Pact, while east and west would meet, from the 1970s on wards, within the framework of the conference on security and cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which in 1995 changed its name to reflect its increased organization structure into organization for security and co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Moreover, elsewhere too organizations mushroomed. On the American continent, the early Pan-American Conference was recreated so as to be come the Organization of American States. In addition, there are more localized organizations such as Caricom and Mercosur.

In Africa, the wave of independence of the 1950s and early 1960s made possible the establishment of the organization of African Unity in 1963, with later such regional organizations as Ecocas (in central Africa) and Ecowas (western Africa) being added. In Asia, some states assembled in Asean, for their security, Australia and New Zealand joined the US in Anzus. A relaxed form of cooperation in the Pacific Rim area, moreover, is channeled through Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC).

In short, there is not a part of the globe which is not covered by the work of some international organization or other; there is hardly a human activity which is not, to some extent, governed by the work of an international organization. Even academic research is at the heart of the work of some organizations, most notably perhaps the International Council for the exploration of the sea (ICES) , originally set up as scientist’s club, having Fridtjof  Nansen as one of its founders, but later ‘internationalized,

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 13:05