The Influence and Significance of International Institutions


There is a growth of international organisations in the world, and with it, there is a proliferation of actions and decisions and norms development from these international institutions that range from international trade, environment, security, and even sport. With this proliferation of norms, the question of how far international institutions can be said to ‘matter’, becomes necessary. Unless these international institutions really are impactful for influencing policy change in the domestic context, and driving norm building in the different areas where international institutions are relevant, it would be futile to view the proliferation of such institutions as a significant event.

There are major international organisations like the United Nations (UN), and World Trade Organisation (WTO) which would come within the domain of international institutions. There are also regional organisations like North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), European Union (EU), Organisation of American States (OAS), Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which would come within the term international institution. Also relevant are a number of bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), and other such organisations that are involved in building norms on specific areas. The term international institution can also be related to international conventions and treaties related to different areas.


It would be at the outset inappropriate to consider that when the international organisations are proliferating at this pace, these would not matter. It may be assumed that the international institutions do matter. However, it is not enough to assume; what is needed is evidence to show that the institutions are influential and effective which would determine that the regime is effective and therefore, ‘matters’.

International institutions matter because the rules, norms and conventions that are developed by the international institutions are impactful not only for the making of law and policy in the domestic context, but also in the context of international interactions be these in the area of economy, business, or even sport. The effect of the international rules and norms in influencing state behaviour and policy choices is noted in the literature (Cortell & Davis, 1996). Also noted in literature is the impact of such international norms on private policy and norms making which is particularly seen in the area of regulation of sport where sports federations that are private bodies also are impacted by the international institutions and the norm making by these bodies (Beloff, Kerr, Demetriou, & Beloff, 2012).

This essay argues that international institutions matter because of their influence on the behaviour and actions of states (particularly in the area of policy and law making) and the actions and decisions of even private bodies. This essay takes evidence from norm making in different areas including environment, economic relations, and sport. This essay also takes evidence from the area of international institutions’ role in peace and security context and humanitarian intervention context to explain why the international institutions remain important. The argument is that international institutions matter because they influence actions and behaviour.

What are international institutions?

First, there is a need to define the term ‘international institution’. Although the term international institution is wide enough to include a variety of institutions and entities, it is a term that at times creates confusion because there is no widely accepted definition of this term; nevertheless, some of the institutions that are widely recognised in international relations include treaties, international organisations, international or regional regimes, and conventions, to name a few (Duffield, 2007). International institutions have been defined as follows:

“relatively stable sets of related constitutive, regulative, and procedural norms and rules that pertain to the international system, the actors in the system (including states as well as non-state entities), and their activities. Any particular international institution need not contain all of these elements. Indeed, it might consist of only one, for instance, constitutive norms or procedural rules, although most international institutions are unlikely to be so simple” (Duffield, 2007, p. 8).

Thus, international institution can be surmised to be a broad term, and it can include a variety of institutions and entities. In this essay, consideration has been given to the international and regional organisations, international and bilateral or multilateral treaties, international or regional regimes, and conventions. How these ‘matter’ or are influential is the scope of this essay.

Do international institutions matter?

International institutions matter because these are now involved in different aspects of international relations and are impactful in how states and organisations respond to the norms created by the international institutions and are influenced by these institutions. International institutions are now major stakeholders in international economy, international relations, maintenance of international peace and security, and even sport. This part of the essay will provide evidence of how international institutions play a role in diverse areas. At the outset, it should be explained that when it is said that international institutions matter, what is being emphasised on is the effectiveness of influence of the regime that is being described as one that matters (Cortell & Davis, 1996).

For instance, in the context international environmental regime and whether it is effective, it has been said that it should be considered whether “regime effectiveness in terms of how outputs of interest are different than they would have been had the institution not existed” (Cortell & Davis, 1996, p. 17). In other words, when assessing whether international institutions matter, consideration can also be given to how outputs could be different if such international institutions would not have existed. It is from this perspective that this essay considers how the influence of the international institutions can be seen to have created norms or outputs that would not have been there had the institutions not have existed.

There has been significant interest in the influence and significance of international institutions in the academic literature; this is articulated well in one article as follows:

“International institutions are central features of modern international relations. This is true of trade, international debt and financial restructuring, and even national security, once the exclusive realm of pure state action. It was certainly true of the two major military engagements of the 1990s, the wars in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. As international institutions have gained prominence in the political landscape, they have increasingly become prominent topics for study. The sharpest debate among researchers has been theoretical: Do international institutions really matter?” (Koremenos, Lipson, & Snidal, 2001, p. 761).

The above statement is reflective of three important points: first, that international institutions are now well entrenched features of the international relations in the contemporary times; second, that the influence of international institutions extends to different areas like trade, security, and international conflict; and third, international institutions have gained significance in the political landscape. Therefore, it becomes important to consider how far these institutions are effective and influential and therefore, ‘matter’. Some of the evidence of how international institutions matter can be taken from the United Nations itself. An example can be taken of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was a resolution of the General Assembly in which certain universal human rights have been recognised. This resolution has been influential in the making of national constitutions and has influenced the municipal laws and policy with the inclusion of such universal values of human rights (Hehir, 2013). Because the norms made by international organisations have had impact on the making of the rules and norms within the domestic laws and policy, it has been said that “modern IO (international organisation) driven international law exists along a spectrum of legally binding obligation” (Alvarez, 2005, p. 594). If there is some binding effect of these norms, or if these norms made at the level of the international institutions influence the norms made at the domestic level, then this illustrates the argument that international institutions matter, as will be discussed in the next sections of this essay

International economic relations

The world is increasingly globalised, and this is manifested in many ways including in the ways in which trade and commerce interrelationships have grown; and information has become non-constricted by geography. In this context, international institutions like General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are important as well as the international trade agreements which may be relevant to the forming of norms at national and international levels.

One of the areas where the influence of international institutions has been seminal in nature. The institutions include organisations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Economic Community (EC) and the North America Free Trade Association (NAFTA), as well as multilateral and bilateral economic arrangements and agreements that are driving the free trade and the free movement of goods and also influencing the norms and policies in domestic and international contexts. These institutions are central to the norm building with regard to international trade. The WTO was developed to promote the stability of the multilateral trading system (Carmody, 2017). The WTO’s norms have been driven by the need for reduction of barriers and facilitation of trade (Chow & Schoenbaum, 2017). The question is how this international institution matters; example may be taken from the nations that are not members of the WTO but have sought to change their own laws and policy in order to get the WTO membership. Here example is taken of Iran, which has tried to get membership of the WTO and for this purpose, the Islamic Republic has adopted some principles of international trade law such as adoption of removal of non-tariff and non-technical trade barriers in Section 115 of the Third Socio-Economic and Cultural Development Plan of the Islamic Republic of Iran 2000-2004 (Manghutay, 2008 ). This is an example of how domestic policy making can be changed due to the influence of the international institutions.

Within the economic context, another international institution that is important is International Labour Organisation (ILO). Norms created by the ILO have been influential in driving policy and legal change in the countries around the world. Important examples can be seen in how ILO norms have led to the policy and legal changes in the area of gender rights; for example, the ABC of Women Workers' Rights and Gender Equality by the International Labour Organisation notes certain labour standards, pay equity, and structures for ensuring greater pay parity and gender equity in the workplace (International Labour Office , 2007). The norms created by International Labour Organisation also demand a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave is to the female employees, which has been adopted in many countries around the world. In the European Union, the principle of gender equity for women is also enforced through the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), Article 157 (1) which enshrines the principle of equal pay for work of equal value and which is also protected through domestic laws in the member states of the European Union. The effectiveness of these laws has been noted in research that has shown the narrowing of the gender pay gap in different countries where these international norms have been adopted in the domestic law and policy (European Commission Employment, 2009). European Union measures that have been made in this area include Council Directive 75/117/EEC of 10 February 1975 and Directive 2006/54/EC on the Implementation of the Principle of Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment of Men and Women in Matters of Employment and Occupation, also called the Recast Directive.

Another area where the International Labour Law conventions are seen to be influential in the area of child labour regulation as well. International Labour law conventions have sought to bar child labour, which was prevalent in many Asian and African nations, but which has been restricted or regulated by many countries; examples can be seen from Ghana, where the Children Act 1998 forbids employment child labour in exploitative conditions or in hazardous conditions (Edmonds, 2007). Although, many African countries have not strictly implemented these laws (Edmonds, 2007), the very fact of the adoption of these laws in the domestic context is an indication of the impact of the International Labour Organisation and other international conventions that have led to the international consensus on banning or restricting of child labour in exploitative and hazardous conditions.


International institutions matter in the context of environment because these institutions are driving policy change in the domestic laws of the nations as well as the international laws on environment. Reference may be made to the GATT, which is an economic treaty but also contains provisions on the protection of environment, particularly Article XX (b), which expressly mentions protection of human, animal or plant life or health and the need to balance trade with environment protection (Schoenbaum, 1997). This provision has been considered to have potential for protection of environment as there are already cases that have come before the WTO where members have justified restrictive measures to trade for the purpose of protection of environment (Moran, 2017). Thus, the GATT, Article XX (b), allows the states to take regulatory measures for the protection of environment as is done by the United States- Measures Affecting The Production And Sale Of Clove Cigarettes of 2012 (Moran, 2017). This is a national example of how international institution has led to the making of policy and law. Another example can be seen in the use of labels like the one mandated in the United States for showing that the products are Dolphin Safe (United States - Measures Concerning the Importation, Marketing and Sale of Tuna and Tuna Products (WT/DS381/44) , 2012). There are also cases from the national jurisdictions that demonstrate how states are influenced by the international institutions for banning products that are considered to be adversely impactful for the environment; an example can be seen in the Retreaded Tyres case, in which Brazil argued that the accumulation of waste tyres was necessary for protecting the environment as per its international obligations (Brazil – Measures Affecting Imports of Retreaded Tyres (WT/DS332), 2007).

Some of the examples that depict the influence of the international institutions on environment are related to ban on trade in endangered species. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the International Wetlands Convention have been effective in leading to the reduction in trade in endangered species like the ivory ban (Mitchell, 2003). Another example can be seen in the way countries have come up with regulations for reduction of chlorofluorocarbons because of the effects of this for ozone layer depletion; these regulations are made in accordance with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer or the Montreal Protocol (Bailey, 2016). It may be noted that Montreal Protocol also includes provisions on sanctions for developed states that fail to reduce chlorofluorocarbons according to the targets and timetable and also includes incentives to developing states to encourage the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons (Mitchell, 2003).

Another example that can be taken in the context of environmental protection is the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1946 or the anti-whaling convention which was set up by the whaling states to create an international structure for restricting whaling (Bodansky, 2010). The International Whaling Commission, another international institution has set annual international whaling quotas under the Convention and since 1986 there is a moratorium on commercial whaling which is binding on the member states (Bodansky, 2010).

Maintenance of international peace and security

International institutions matter in the context of maintenance of international peace and security. There are different aspects to this maintenance of international peace and security; the first that is being considered here is that of the Responsibility to Protect principle and humanitarian intervention, which has been developed by international institutions.

International institutions have been central to the development of the principle of humanitarian intervention. The Responsibility to Protect principle was first introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which is an international institution. This principle morally obligates the international community to provide protection to individuals caught in situations of violent conflict within certain geographical areas where the states controlling these geographies are unable to protect or are unwilling to protect these people (Cohen, 2012). The World Summit on prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity was held in 2005 where this principle was accepted by the United Nations (Bellamy, 2009). It cannot be overemphasised that the problems of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity have occurred time and again in the different parts of Asia and Africa in the past few decades and that these problems were not addressed adequately by states themselves, which is why the role of the international institutions becomes so significant. The states have time and again shown themselves to be unable to unwilling to address genocide and other crimes against humanity. Recent example can be seen in the situation with Syria where civil war and conflict has led to much human toll (Cohen, 2012).

The Responsibility to Protect is an exception to the principle of state sovereignty, and this is an important point which shows the significance of the international institutions which then take on the responsibility of the human rights protection by intervention in the affected state: this is based on the responsibility of the state to protect its population from crimes against humanity, failing which it becomes the international community’s responsibility to encourage states to meet their obligation, failing which it becomes the responsibility of the international community to take collective action (Nasser-Eddine, 2012). This is where the role of the international community becomes relevant because the international community takes this collective action under the aegis of some international institution, which could be the United Nations, or the NATO. These institutions could become central to the humanitarian intervention, which is defined as the use of armed force by a state or international community in the event of crimes against humanity occurring in the state where the intervention takes place which “shocks the collective conscience of the international community” (Farer, et al., 2005, p. 212).

International institutions have been instrumental in managing some situations of conflict and strife; an example can be seen in the Libyan civil war which led to the involvement of a international organisations and international communities in response to protection of civilian lives; this included the involvement of the United Nations and NATO (Serwer, 2011).


An example of how international institutions matter in the context of sport can be seen in the way in which international institutions have become significant regulatory authorities in the area of sport.

To begin this discussion with the European Union, the regulation of the sport by the European Union has developed over a period of time, from the time when the interaction between the European Union and sport was one of relative indifference to now when there is cooperation between the sports federations and European Union institutions and also regulation of sport by these institutions (Parrish, 2003). For the European Union, the power to regulate sport in the European Union is sanctioned by the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) because Article 165 allows the European Union to contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues. This is a significant point to reveal the way in which the international institutions become significant in even regulating sport.

It may also be mentioned that as an international agreement, TFEU itself is an international institution which regulates the relations of the member states in the European Union and also regulates a number of aspects of such relationships. In the TFEU, there are a number of provisions that are relevant to regulation of sport in the international context even though this may be limited to Europe. For example, Article 102 of the TFEU would allow the regulation of the contracts between the sports federations and athletes if such contracts are abuse of dominant position (Haynes & Marcus, 2019). This provision has been applied to prevent dominant sport federations from taking the rights of the athletes for granted (Haynes & Marcus, 2019).

There are other international institutions that are involved in the regulation of sport in different aspects. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is one such institution and this is a body where the arbitrations related to sports are decided (Beloff, Kerr, Demetriou, & Beloff, 2012). The awards made by the CAS leads to the creation of sports law as well and as such it is a source of sports law. Another important international institution is the anti-doping regulatory body, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is an international organisation which coordinates, monitors, and regulates doping in sport in the international level (Mitten & Opie, 2012). The WADA has adopted the WADA Code of 2007, which contains provisions on offences and penalties which is said to have established “an advanced global system of justice, which creates a more or less uniform set of internationally respected and enforceable legal rules” (Mitten & Opie, 2012, p. 282). There is also the Olympic Charter (IOC) rules which is a source of global law and is an institution at the international level that regulates sports.

These international institutions matter because the intervention by these institutions in the area of sport has led to better regulation so that there is fairness in sport, rights of sport persons and athletes are protected, anti-doping conditions are developed and managed, among other aspects (Beloff, Kerr, Demetriou, & Beloff, 2012). This point can be better illustrated by giving examples of how international institutions have managed to regulate the area of sport. One of the international institutions that can be considered here is the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). This court has made a number of decisions that have led to the regulation of sport and the regulation of the rights of the athletes in the European Union. For example, in one case the CJEU held that the FIFA cannot make norms to restrict players unreasonably from moving to another club after their contract with their own club comes to an end (Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman, (1995) C-415/93, 1995).

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The summary of this section can be that even the field of sport, the impact of the international institutions can be seen. This impact is on the relationships between the sports federations and the athletes as well as how the sports regulatory bodies are making norms that are followed in the world of sports. For instance, FIFA norms are followed by professional football everywhere whereas International Cricket Council makes norms for professional cricket.


As clarified in the beginning of this essay, when the word ‘matter’ is used in the context of international institutions, what is being spoken about is the impact of the international institutions is the formation of norms and rules in the domestic as well as international contexts. This can also be related to the influence of the international institutions on the actions and behaviours of different actors and entities including the state governments, international or regional organisations, and even individuals. The impact of international institutions can be seen in different fields. In this essay, evidence of how international institutions matter is given from the perspective of the environment law or norm making, economic relations and trade relations between states, labour laws, influence on peace and security, and even rule making in the area of sport. At the end of this discussion, it can be reiterated that the international institutions do matter in international relations. This can be related not only to international and regional organisations, but also international treaties, conventions, and agreements. Examples of such conventions are given in the essay including TFEU, WADA and GATT, among others. This evidence supports the argument that international institutions do influence and impact policy making in domestic and international contexts, and therefore, they do ‘matter’.


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