Between independence and accountability

Exploring the legal autonomy of international organizations

Authored by: Richard Collins , Nigel D. White

Routledge Handbook of International Organization

Print publication date:  May  2013
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415501439
eBook ISBN: 9780203405345
Adobe ISBN: 9781134112982


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One of the most significant developments in the evolution of the international legal order over the last hundred years or so has been the emergence of international organizations (IOs) as autonomous legal actors. Whilst this autonomy is expressed formally in the recognition of an organization’s international legal personality, its ‘separate will’ manifests more concretely in its ability to exercise legal powers, in turn depending on the internal ‘constitutional’ dynamics at play in the organization, particularly between institution and member-states. Examining this relationship in relatively centralized institutions like the United Nations (UN), however, reveals complex layers of autonomy. Whilst this layering undoubtedly confirms that these institutions can possess a separate will, which is clearly more than the sum of their separate parts, these complex internal dynamics make it somewhat difficult to develop a coherent system of accountability or legal responsibility to control their activities: such responsibility being perhaps the most obvious corollary of legal autonomy.

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