The Immunity of International Organizations: Examining the State-IO Bargain
International relations often characterizes intergovernmental organizations (IOs) as facilitators of coordination. Despite the importance of international organizations and their increasing prevalence, an underrepresentation of an important element existed for legal privileges and immunities granted to these institutions. What are the implications of insulating IOs and their staff from legal recourse? Do IOs ‘work’ better when they are protected by law? What can endogenous design features tell us about the contracts among states and IOs?
In order to begin addressing these, Professor Julia Gray and Rachel Hulvey recruited a team of Research Assistants to amass a data set for analysis. They assigned us certain regions based on language skills and tasked us to utilize legal databases to search for privileges and immunities by country. Maneuvering through tools including various legal resources provided by Penn Law (Global Regulation, Foreign Law Guide, Nexis Uni), UN Judicial Yearbook, and individual country databases, the team found related laws for 113 IOs for 135 countries. We read each law for privileges and immunities provided and codified them by type, ranging from communications to flags and emblems. The data showed that the UN and its agencies were the most widely afforded immunities with development banks, international courts, and regional IOs close in numbers. Data demonstrated how, IO immunities, an overlooked element of the legalization of IOs, are crucial in examining under what conditions IOs and staff are brought to member-state courts, the terms of the various bargains between states and IOs on legal insulation, and the functional independence of IOs and staff. The significance of this data set as one of the first comprehensive sets of data on IO immunities, which will have applications for literatures on diffusion and endogenous design of institutions, opens the discussion regarding implications for future literature on IO performance in terms of autonomy and independence, and addresses questions of IO legitimacy and accountability.
This IO immunity project, my first research experience, indelibly influenced my perspective of IOs in international relations, my understanding of research, and my relationships with colleagues and mentors. Working with legislation enabled observation of how IR concepts manifest in them and how states/IOs implement functions such as immunity. Meeting discussions offered new insights into this promising line of questioning, connecting to concepts I will study in International Law this semester. Further, given the opportunity to conduct research myself, the project exposed me to the many facets of research, especially with unexplored frontiers. I gained valuable skills when troubleshooting with the team in addition to learning how to navigate research tools — namely, legal databases. Personally evolving with the team and watching our mentors transfer our work into important analyses presented significant research stages I was grateful to witness and participate in. Finally, our work over the summer developed dependable relationships with scholars with similar passions and goals. I look forward to future growth of these relationships in conjunction with my own research pursuits and interests, the intersections of international law and security, they helped to progress.