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

Marieke Louis
Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, Sciences Po Grenoble, Grenoble Alpes University

Lucile Maertens
Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations, University of Lausanne

Synopsis: “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.

Keywords: depoliticization, practices and logics, International Labour Organization (ILO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

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 political recommendations 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.

The Politics of Depoliticization

How, why and to what end do IOs present their action as outside the realm of politics? To answer this question, the concept of depoliticization has proven useful. Depoliticization is the process in which a situation is considered outside politics and framed as apolitical. Applying it to the case of IOs, our analysis builds bridges between growing scholarship on (de)politicization and IO studies on functionalism, international bureaucracies, anti-politics and politics of expertise.

While we analyze IOs and depoliticization, this should not be seen as contradictory to the assumption that IOs are essentially political actors. Depoliticization is a political process which consists in minimizing, concealing and even eliminating politics within IOs: the question we raise is not whether IOs are apolitical or if IO action is depoliticized but rather how IOs perform depoliticization and what are the consequences of IO depoliticizing moves.

Depoliticization in Practice

Our book accounts for practices and logics of depoliticization performed by IO staff as much as member states. How does depoliticization work? First IOs claim expert knowledge and objectivity, thus allowing them to provide technical interpretation of the world’s most pressing problems. Second, they format neutrality: IOs develop and circulate ideas and products (factsheets, maps, FAQs, best practices, etc.) which inform, but, most importantly, advise the international community on the “right” path to follow. Third, IOs gain time at the expense of political momentum: they delay decision-making, dilute the issues at stake, routinize apparently urgent matters and sometimes even encourage amnesia over sensitive issues.

In the book, we illustrate the second depoliticization practice (formatting neutrality) based on the cases of the ILO and UNEP. We show how both organizations provide supposedly neutral information by relying heavily on reports, manuals, factsheets, guidelines, training material, online platforms and visual productions. These “products” share three characteristics: they are instructive, practical and advisory. In the case of UNEP, the apparent neutral and instructive nature of its maps or simplified figures conceals the role of political actors and governance structures in the understanding of the complex relations between armed conflicts and the environment.  In the case of the ILO, its secretariat relies on the advisory idiom to target controversial issues such as child labor (how to avoid it?) or corporate social responsibility and multinational companies (through the ILO Helpdesk for Business on International Labour Standards).

Through depoliticization, IOs fight for recognition and attempt to expand their mandates

Why do IOs depoliticize and to what ends? First they claim to be acting according to a logic of necessity and rationality to answer people’s needs and solve problems. Second, through depoliticization, IOs fight for recognition and attempt to expand their mandates, therefore constantly re-affirming their relevance and legitimacy in a competitive environment. Third, IOs can avoid responsibility by finding scapegoats and disengaging from politics. This may eventually lead to maintaining the status quo and existing power relationships both within and among IOs.

Here again, examples from the ILO and UNEP convincingly demonstrate the second logic (monopolizing legitimacy): their bureaucracies depoliticize their action to preserve their relevance and limit competition with other IOs. This has been particularly the case since the 1990s between the ILO and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) (another Geneva-based organization) which started to develop its own standards in the field of social regulation, such as ISO 45001 on occupational safety and health, a topic which is historically considered as an “ILO matter”. Rather than engaging in an uncertain political battle, due to the obvious divergent views on regulation and organizational cultures between the ILO and ISO, both organizations have tried to depoliticize the debate on occupational safety and health by stressing their respective technical mandate on the matter. In the case of UNEP, depoliticization practices proved highly useful to expand its mandate: by mobilizing the organization’s technical expertise, UNEP staff obtained the monopoly on UN post-conflict environmental assessments at the expense of other IOs. In other words, UNEP depoliticized the decision to extend its mission to operational activities by making it look like a given thanks to its expertise and experience, and then secured the approval of its member states.

Depoliticising the World

Unpacking depoliticization within IOs in a systematic way questions long-held views that some issues are by their nature more political than others: even the most controversial issues, such as the UN Security Council reform or the recognition of responsibility in the face of genocides, could become depoliticized. As shown by the debate over the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of IOs cannot be easily divided between “political” vs. “technical” organizations.

The book also allows us to challenge the rampant, negative view on politics which tends to dominate within IOs. In order to fulfil the “noble” cause of international cooperation, IOs are likely to distance themselves from the “dirty business” of politics. Yet, by acting with discretion away from national political battles, public opinion and the media, they tend to conceal the choices and biases that shape their activities while failing to answer the growing demand for transparency, accountability and democracy at the international level. Such a stance can be counterproductive to their goals, aggravating the IO legitimacy crisis.

This article is a revised and extended version of the following blog post: https://theloop.ecpr.eu/why-international-organisations-apparently-hate-politics/

It draws on insights from Marieke Louis’ and Lucile Maertens’ latest book Why International Organizations Hate Politics, Depoliticizing the World published in 2021 by Routledge. For open access, click here.

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