Keeping Up Standards for a Better World – Or What Anthropology Can Contribute to the Study of International Organizations

Miia Halme-Tuomisaari
Associate Professor in Human Rights Studies at Lund University and Research Associate at the Global Governance Centre
Twitter: @HalmeTuomisaari

Synopsis: What kind of insights can anthropology offer to the study of IOs? This essay illustrates this via an inductive theorization on the effectiveness of organizational aesthetics.

Keywords: Anthropology; IOs; International law; Effectiveness; Aesthetics

What can anthropologists contribute to the study of international organizations? A lot, as I illustrate in this essay building on recent anthropological contributions. I offer additional insights from my ethnography on the reporting cycles of the UN Human Rights Committee, a UN treaty body composed of a team of experts responsible for monitoring state compliance with the obligations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Despite decades of flourishing scholarship in diverse disciplines, international lawyers continue to dominate the study of IOs. Yet, in the past decade, this disciplinary hierarchy has become increasingly unsatisfying within and beyond legal studies. In the field of law, this dissatisfaction subsists amongst an increasing number of international lawyers who are “losing faith” in their discipline, both as an analytical framework and as a tool for world improvement, as discussed by Cohen, Riles, Scott, Guilfoyle, and Halme-Tuomisaari. With the continued proliferation of IOs accompanied by differing regulative frameworks and normative orders, it has further become increasingly unclear what exactly makes them “legal.”

Together, these observations have generated calls for “alternative approaches” to “pluralize the subjects, methods, and aims of international organizations law in a decidedly non-doctrinal fashion.”

Anthropologists have responded to this call via studies on the processes of global governance, bureaucracy, expertise, and documentary practices, as illustrated among others by Riles, Müller, Bear & Mathur, and Brown, Reed & Yarrow. Today, we are able to study IOs as forming “palaces of hope” which host “social worlds with distinct characters, influenced by their connections with civil society, states, transnational corporations, and publics.”

We are able to grasp how “international organizations involve collective and individual actors in their policy-making, absorb critique, attempt to neutralize political conflict, and create new political fields in competition and collusion with local actors and national governments.” We are able to reach the “affective lives of bureaucracies” and study “how actors maintain a sense of purpose and agency in spite of the tedious and burdensome nature of the administrative procedures in which they take part,” as Julie Billaud and Jane Cowan have phrased the matter.

Toward inductive sameness
The quest to study IOs raises a fundamental question: How does one arrive at satisfactory legal definitions or theorizations when the concrete incarnations, criteria of membership, and scope of operations differ so greatly from one IO to another?

In some ways, it may even be easier for anthropologists to study and theorize international organizations than it is for international lawyers. To the international lawyer, the multiplicity of IOs – their differing compositions, tasks as well as the legal entanglements of their operations mapped out by Nico Krisch among others – amounts to significant hurdles.

Yet, where the international lawyer sees troubling difference, the anthropologist sees significant sameness. First, there is the “community of practice” of IOs, meaning their staff bare great similarity. With few exceptions, international civil servants all belong to the same transnational elite with similar educational background and work experiences.

Sameness also characterizes their professional endeavors. When IO staff produce and process such documents as human rights reports, they will likely do so via similar knowledge practices and legal technicalities.

Another element facilitating anthropological interventions is our discipline’s proclivity to theorize from the ground-up. In my own work, this has given rise to the description of the UN human rights monitoring framework as forming a formidable “apparatus.” This characterization borrows from Foucault, who has described the apparatus, or dispositif, as a “heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid.”

I have complemented this description using the metaphor of ice to describe the complexity of organizational inner contours. Ice has simultaneously been an apt metaphor to illustrate the “fuzzy logic” of the UN human rights apparatus. “Fuzzy logic,” in turn, is borrowed from Bourdieu in turn to emphasize the indeterminacy of the rules that diverse agents mobilize in practice.

Looking at UN operations through the notion of fuzzy logic captures an interesting paradox. One of the cardinal values of IOs today is that their operations should be transparent. Yet, the very documents they produce may in fact result in greater confusion and obscurity. This outcome may partly be due to the use of specialized jargon and procedural complexity.

Importantly, fuzziness—or partial opacity—may be a desired element for seasoned insiders. An example of UN treaty bodies clarifies what this means: The mandate of human rights treaty bodies is based on covenant provisions. Yet, these provisions left the actual scope of treaty body operations for the treaty bodies themselves to define. For example, the basis of the Human Rights Committee’s operations is stated in Article 36 of the ICCPR via a formulation that leaves considerable room for maneuver.

Over the past decades, the expert committees themselves and the UN, in particular staff of the OHCHR, have determined much of what the treaty bodies actually do and how they do it. Simultaneously, these decisions have expanded the scope of treaty body operations in a manner that does not please all states, giving rise also to aspirations to curb the scope of their operations.

The incessant problem of impact
Jan Klabbers summarizes how common expectations bestowed on IOs include that they are “apolitical and cost-effective, doing things states cannot do on their own (or are reluctant to do on their own). While apolitical, they should nonetheless contribute to world peace and the ‘salvation of mankind’” (see also Louis & Maertens 2021).

Recently, we have seen increasing questions on whether IOs live up to these expectations. One recurring source of criticism is that instead of actually doing something in the world, all IOs do is “generate documents that heighten obscurity, while producing ideas and policies behind closed doors.”

IOs feel these criticisms intensely. Many actively question the direction and continued legitimacy of their operations, with some feeling the need to invite anthropologists in to conduct ethnographic studies of their organizational cultures. Other IOs revisit their foundational visions and significantly revise them to maintain continued relevance in a rapidly changing world. One example is Amnesty International’s increasing shift towards sustainability, a novel concern in the field of human rights.

Anthropologizing effectiveness
The criticism directed toward IOs comprises part of a broad trend questioning whether international law as a whole is effective as discussed by Andrea Bianchi, among others. Anthropology offers another vantage point for engaging with this criticism by shifting attention away from what we think IOs’ operations should look like and the “impact” we think they should have. Instead, it enables us to theorize based on what IOs actually do…from the ground-up.

Examples from the Human Rights Committee illustrate this. In legal scholarship, the most common source of criticism toward UN treaty bodies is that their work is legally non-binding and hence ineffective. Indeed, instead of legally binding decisions, the Human Rights Committee can only produce documents with authoritative significance called “Concluding Observations” regarding how states have complied with the ICCPR. They additionally issue documents called “General Comments,” which offer interpretations of particular covenant provisions. Finally, the Committee produces legally non-binding “Decisions” regarding “Individual Communications.”

When viewed through an anthropological lens, the consequences of the Committee’s work appear more multi-faceted. One angle is to consider individual documents and sessions as forming an endless, seamless cycle, which Annelise Riles has described as human rights dialogue. In my work, I characterize how this dialogue contributes to “movement in the right direction,” slowly increasing the importance of human rights.

Another avenue is to explore the informal influence of treaty body proceedings. This may happen when a state civil servant picks up a UN treaty body report condemning a state’s practices towards minorities. The civil servant may use this condemnation to argue for new resources, thus ideally improving the position of minorities while also advancing human rights.

There is also a third avenue which builds on the “mundane forms through which (IOs) work” and their “boringly, even achingly, familiar routines”– sort of the international diplomacy equivalents of good manners and table setting rules at a fancy dinner party. Here, Annelise Riles’ work on legal technicalities is helpful. Riles describes legal technicalities as “those aspects of legal practice that cannot be reduced to norms, trust or other sociological concepts.” As one tangible example, legal technicalities are the “routinized pathways of thought,” via which lawyers approach legal documents.

This manner of approaching documents forms further “a profoundly aesthetic practice—a practice of fidelity to proper form.” This is because, Riles continues, “the legitimacy of law inheres in its aesthetic dimensions and practices.” This insight offers a powerful alternative approach for considering the operations and consequences of IOs.

IO documents and the effectiveness of organizational aesthetics
When applied to the functioning of IOs, these insights suggest that there is importance in the very existence of documents that IOs as well as expert groups, such as UN treaty bodies, create and process. It matters then to have documents organized aesthetically in covenant-like paragraphs and sub-paragraphs, relying extensively on individual pieces of legislation and court rulings.

Moreover, thinking anthropologically about IO documents lends significance to the making of documents in such carefully choreographed meetings as the “constructive dialogue” sessions, which take place between the expert members of the Human Rights Committee and state delegates. Thus, more important than whether such documents have binding legal force or not—or even what they state—is that they impart their messages via appropriate organizational aesthetics.

When viewed from an anthropological perspective, documents and meetings of IOs form significant legitimating factors for the IOs’ continued operations. They create civilized standards for a better world characterized by the values of legal technicality and proper aesthetic practice—and by extension, rationality, transparency, and the rule of law.

NB: This essay is based on a plenary address given October 14, 2021 for the Alternative Approaches to International Organizations in International Law: Potentials, Complexities, and Pitfalls Workshop organized at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

Photo by Kasonya Wilcox

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