International Law International Organizations
Alison Duxbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0011


Since World War II, both the number and the variety of international organizations operating in the international community has increased. Organizations range from large universal entities with broad political functions, such as the United Nations, to small regional organizations with relatively narrow activities, such as the Benelux. The proliferation of international organizations and the functions they perform have been matched by an increase in the powers granted to individual organizations and their organs by member states. This growth in organizational powers has led commentators to call for international organizations to be more democratic in their operations, to be more accountable to their members and third parties, and to be held responsible for violations of international law. These concerns are evident in more recent attention directed to international organizations—for example, debates surrounding the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and calls for the United Nations’ immunity to be lifted in the face of allegations that it caused the cholera outbreak in Haiti. Although international organizations differ widely in terms of their membership, functions, powers, and geographical reach, they have a number of common features and face similar problems in terms of their institutional design. This has led to studies of the legal issues facing international organizations and to a growth in commentary on the law of international organizations, otherwise termed “international institutional law.” Such commentary may provide a general overview of the common legal issues facing international organizations or may focus on one specific problem. Readers interested in international relations approaches to the study of international organizations, including literature on specific organizations, should consult the Oxford Bibliographies article titled “International Organizations.”

Introductory Works

Before turning to specific texts and articles discussing international institutional law, this section includes three works which explore the expanding discipline of international organizations, and in particular, the law of international organizations. The following works discuss the development of a separate field of study devoted to the law of international organizations, as distinct from the discipline of international law more generally or the study of specific international organizations. Sohn 1968 provides an analysis of the literature on international organizations; Amerasinghe 2004 offers an argument for further research on international institutional law, whereas Klabbers 2008 questions whether there is in fact an independent discipline devoted to the study of the law of international organizations.

  • Amerasinghe, C. F. “The Law of International Organizations: A Subject Which Needs Exploration and Analysis.” International Organizations Law Review 1 (2004): 9–21.

    DOI: 10.1163/1572374043242349Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In the first issue of the new journal International Organizations Law Review, Amerasinghe, author of one of the principal textbooks in the field, argues for further attention and research to be given to the discipline of international institutional law as part of international law.

  • Klabbers, Jan. “The Paradox of International Institutional Law.” International Organizations Law Review 5 (2008): 151–173.

    DOI: 10.1163/157237408X326138Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A more critical examination of the question whether there is an independent discipline of international institutional law.

  • Sohn, Louis B. “The Growth of the Science of International Organizations.” In The Relevance of International Law: Essays in Honor of Leo Gross. Edited by Karl Deutsch and Stanley Hoffman, 251–269. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

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    Although not exclusively devoted to a discussion of legal analyses of international organizations, Sohn’s chapter provides a historical analysis of the literature (mainly books) on international organizations, including the law of international organizations (“international constitutional law”), in a range of different languages.

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