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Project: The Legitimacy of International Organizations

International organizations, and particularly the United Nations, were at the center of attention and apparent height of efficacy in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In the following years expectations for a resurgence of multilateralism faded and international organizations, and particularly the United Nations, are now facing a crisis of credibility and even of legitimacy. The legitimacy of international organizations has always been viewed as secondary and weaker compared to the legitimacy of states. As a condition of the international system this in itself is not surprising: international organizations are derivated organizations, created by states, and states remain the primary actors of international politics. They are, however, constantly challenged - theoretically and practically - and their right to exist in their current form is increasingly questioned. One can easily recognize both the shortcomings and the validity of a number of criticisms leveled at international organizations.

Yet the growing sense of global integration and the unavoidable need for multilateral arrangements points to a continuing relevance for international organizations. The evolution of international affairs presents an increased need for cooperation and regulation between states on the basis of deepening interaction and pressures to collectively manage common issues. The international community also reflects a growing global ethos which speaks in favor of the need for legitimacy in international organizations, of its renewal on the basis of existing principles but also on the basis of new needs. This is paradoxical situation that the project will aim to address and to offer answers.

Within this context, the project will revisit the issue of the legitimacy of international organizations and examine how it might be possible to develop a discourse restating and reassessing their political validity and legitimacy.

In focusing on a number of strategic international organizations, the United Nations in particular, the project will address the following issues: a) What is the basis of the legitimacy of international organizations compared to that of the state (regarding issues such as consent, accountability, participation, transparency)? b) What are their comparative advantages? c) What kinds of division of labor are feasible - and optimal - between international organizations and other international actors (states, NGOs, etc.)? d) What are the fields in which international organizations are likely to be the more relevant and effective (such as security, humanitarian assistance, promoting and codifying international legal norms)? e) Can an increased efficiency of international organizations significantly improve their legitimacy?

The objective of the study would be to develop a set of arguments able to challenge the criticisms directed towards international organizations by states and certain civil society actors. Further to this, the objective would be to demonstrate that certain functions at the international level can only be performed by international organizations. By revisiting the legitimacy of international organizations, both in terms of their founding principles and the evolution of their responsibilities, it will be possible to defend and strengthen their comparative advantage.

Project team:
Dr. Jean-Marc Coicaud, Senior Research Officer, UNU

Dr. Veijo Heiskanen (Project Director) Associate Professor of International Law, University of Helsinki

Professor Philip Allot, Professor of Law and International Relations, Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK

Professor Thomas M. Franck, Director, Center for International Studies, New York University School of Law; President of the American Society of International Law

Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor of sociology at the School of Economics of the University of Coimbra, Portugal

Dr. Jacques Fomerand, Director, UN University office in North America (observer)