The Legal Status of Non-Governmental Organisations in International Law
Abstract: Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly the subject of public debate, and it is often asserted that they play an informal role within the international legal system. At the same time, the classical concepts related to the subjects of international law seem to be constructed for a situation where non-state actors have no or limited international legal personality.The study takes as a starting-point that the concepts of international law – also those related to its subjects – do not dictate but rather adapt to factual developments on the international scene. Accordingly, the international legal status of NGOs is investigated by means of an inductive method, i.e. a thorough examination and systematisation of existing international legal rules and practices which relate to NGOs. It is found that NGOs as organisations hold several rights under international legal instruments within human rights law, labour law, environmental law, and humanitarian law. The area of their obligations is less developed, although some quasi-legal obligations may be emerging from the codes of conduct which are adhered to by many NGOs, as well as from instruments regulating the co-operation between NGOs and intergovernmental organisations. As regards the international legal capacities of NGOs, the clearest examples are provided by the rules according to which NGOs have locus standi or may act in other roles before international and regional courts and quasi-judicial bodies. NGOs also co-operate with intergovernmental organisations to a considerable extent, as is demonstrated by instruments on consultative or similar status, as well as by agreements on operational co-operation. Such agreements are often not subjected to any national legal system, and there are also agreements which refer to general principles of international law. Finally, the participation of NGOs in some major international conferences is studied, and their influence on the negotiations at the Rome Conference for an International Criminal Court is examined by means of interviews with a number of persons who were in key positions during the Conference.The study is placed in a wider political and legal context which takes account of issues of participation and representation of groups in international law. It is asserted that NGOs play an important role in this legal system, considering that rules on the recognition of states and governments still largely ignore whether a government has been democratically elected or implements basic international human rights, and since globalisation has weakened the links between decision-making on the national and international planes. Although NGOs are self-appointed bodies which may not be representative of any larger groups in society, the possibility of joining an NGO or establishing such an organisation can function as an avenue towards better international representation of some groups. Moreover, international law needs to create fora for pluralistic and inclusive discourse if it is to be perceived as legitimate.
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