The Global
11 October 2021

Why International Organizations Hate Politics: The case of the ILO and UNEP

“We don’t do politics!” is often heard within international organizations (IOs) from international bureaucrats, governmental delegates or civil society representatives engaged in multilateral action. Taking these apolitical claims seriously can unveil the politics of depoliticization within IOs, such as the ILO and UNEP, and sheds new light on the legitimacy of global governance institutions.

By Marieke Louis, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, Sciences Po Grenoble,  Grenoble Alpes University 
and Lucile Maertens Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations, University of Lausanne


Apolitical Claims: Insights from the ILO and UNEP

International organizations (IOs) are at the forefront of the art of doing politics while pretending not to. When we were conducting fieldwork at the International Labour Organization (ILO) or at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), officials constantly claimed “not to do politics.” Yet the object of their mandates, respectively to negotiate international labour standards and to protect the environment, are inherently political. For instance, UNEP’s supposedly neutral assessments often include very on the most appropriate public policies to adopt, with the objective, among others, to avoid local conflicts in Sudan. Likewise, member state delegates at the ILO refer to “technical, labour-related issues” in proclaiming they are “not dealing with political matters.” In both cases, the apolitical claims are at odds with the political content of their activities.

Drawing similar conclusions from apparently such different cases alerted us on the topic’s potential salience. If we look at their history, mandate or composition, the ILO and UNEP have little in common: the ILO, created in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919 with a tripartite membership gathering not only governments but also representatives of workers and employers, fulfils the mission of harmonizing working conditions through the establishment of international labour standards, as well as providing policy recommendations to foster the creation of decent jobs worldwide. UNEP, on the other side, is a small UN programme in charge of promoting global environmental governance and established in 1972 after the first Earth Summit held in Stockholm.


IOs cannot be reduced to apolitical mechanisms established to facilitate international cooperation


However, these organizations are both designated as “technical” (as opposed to “political”) organizations. Investigating these labels further questions the repetition of a pattern of depoliticization in many policy fields such as international labour rights and the protection of the environment, but also humanitarian action, development, global health, security and peacekeeping or even international trade. IO actors—secretariats, staff, consultants as well as members, delegates or observers— share a common tendency to see their role as being outside the realm of politics.

While they tend to minimize the political dimension of their actions, they nonetheless implicitly acknowledge their political commitments. IOs are inherently embedded in the politics of international relations: they constitute sites of negotiation and contradiction between states; they provide a framework for the participation of non-state actors such as transnational activist networks or multinational corporations; they play a key role in shaping global problems and the governance system to deliver multilateral responses. In other words, IOs cannot be reduced to apolitical mechanisms established to facilitate international cooperation. This paradox is the starting point of our book, which explores the process of depoliticization performed by and within IOs.



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