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Research Project Dr. Mikalayeva

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"And they lived happily ever after":
Authority and legitimacy of international organizations in the process of treaty monitoring

  • Research project prepared by Dr. Liudmila Mikalayeva (
  • Project participants: Angela Geck, Salomé Persin
  • Supported by the Research Innovation Fund of the University of Freiburg (project 2100094801)

When states accede to international treaties, they take on political and legal obligations. Signing and ratifying the treaty is like the bright day of marriage: vows and promises are cemented by a legal obligation in the face of a community. The promises however do not guarantee a happy life ever after: the implementation of treaties is often selective, delayed, superficial, or otherwise deficient. To improve implementation, states can therefore task international organizations with monitoring the respect of the treaty by all parties. Practically, a small group of internationally recruited experts is called to assess legislation, policy, and practices of sovereign states in light of the treaty, and claim from these states respect of their conclusions and compliance with their suggestions. This is a challenging task for the international organization (IO) and the "treaty body" (the unit within the IO directly responsible for the monitoring of a treaty). For the successful fulfillment of their role, treaty bodies need authority vis-à-vis states, which is supported by social acceptance (legitimacy) of their role as monitors and can be enhanced by self-legitimizing efforts of the IO, as well as challenged by the states.

This interest in creation of agency and authority in and by the organizations themselves and in the organizational institutional patterns, interactions and conflicts within IOs corresponds to the new "wave" of scholarship on international organizations – "unpacking" IOs as organizations and, namely, as bureaucracies (Barnett and Finnemore 1999, 2004; Trondal et al. 2010). Currently, scholars in the field are interested in the factors influencing the agency and relative autonomy of IOs, the empirical evidence of the different sources of authority and legitimacy of IOs, the role of common rules, norms, and ethos in the conduct of international bureaucrats, and the interplay between the institutional, political and individual explanations of the IOs' functioning (such as organizational structures, ideological divides, role repertoires, leadership, or formal vs. informal behavior).

In this project I focus on report-based monitoring procedures, where states and treaty bodies regularly exchange documents on the state of the treaty's implementation. The focus on treaty monitoring allows me to study the technical, bureaucratic dimension of the IOs' work, while remaining attentive to the political and socio-cultural factors in play. Conceptually, I approach treaty monitoring as a communicative interaction which offers the institutional setting for the build-up and use of authority by the IO. Newly introduced monitoring procedures are of special interest in this context: studying them allows to trace the process of the crystallization of institutional practices, borrowing, selection, and transformation. So far I have looked at one new monitoring process in particular – Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Mikalayeva 2011, Mikalayeva 2012, Mikalayeva 2015). I identified a number of institutional innovations, deployed by the treaty body, which have lead to enhancing its authority and legitimacy in relation to the state parties. Such institutional innovations include changes in the institutional design, procedure, and discourse, initiated by the treaty body and negotiated (explicitly or implicitly) with the political bodies of the IO and state parties. In the current project I aim at comparing this behavior with another treaty body to establish whether similar institutional innovations can be found there and whether they have lead to a comparable result.

I expect institutional innovations to have an impact on how authority is negotiated in a communicative exchange between the IOs and state parties, and how legitimacy is achieved. Once the formal institutional framework is decided upon by the state parties and the IO, the treaty itself, the obligations of the states, their policies and practice in the light of the treaty, the position of the treaty body, its role and authority are negotiated and discursively constructed in the communicative exchange which follows. Therefore, I concentrate on the dynamic study of institutions and discourse. For the study of institutions, I combine international relations (IR) and sociology of organizations in approaching self-legitimation and authority-enhancing techniques of treaty bodies. Thus, I integrate insights of the bureaucratic take on the authority of IOs in IR (authority of IOs as standard-setters, norm-interpreters, value-guarantors, and experts, see Hurd 1999, Frank 1988) with research on legitimacy of organizations in institutional theory of organizations (Suchman 1995). For the study of discourse, I use a combination of qualitative and quantitative discourse analysis inspired by a dialogical approach to communication, and – for the main project – expert interviews. This attention to discourse responds to calls for a fuller and better use of discourse analysis in the study of political reality, namely within the framework of institutional theory (Schmidt 2008; Czarniawska 2008; Phillips & Malhotra 2008).

For the initial project phase (October 2017 – March 2018), two case studies will be conducted, comparing the nature, dynamic and impact of institutional innovations introduced by two treaty bodies. The guiding questions of the overall project are:

  • How do treaty bodies innovate to enhance their autonomy and authority in treaty monitoring? What are the differences in their strategies and how can they be explained?
  • What are the outcomes of institutional innovations across different treaty bodies, organizations and policy sectors? Under which conditions are innovations most successful in enhancing the autonomy and authority of treaty bodies and thus improving the quality of the treaty review?


Barnett, Michael N., and Martha Finnemore. 1999. "The politics, power, and pathologies of international organizations." International Organization 53.4: 699-732.

Barnett, Michael & Martha Finnemore. 2004. Rules for the World. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

Czarniawska, Barbara. 2008. "How to misuse institutions and get away with it: Some reflections on institutional theory(ies)." The Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism: 769-781.

Franck, Thomas M. 1988. "Legitimacy in the international system." American Journal of International Law 82.4: 705-759.

Hurd, Ian. 1999. "Legitimacy and authority in international politics." International Organization 53.2: 379-408.

Mikalayeva, Liudmila. 2011. "Negotiating Compliance: Discursive Choices in a Formalized Setting of Diplomatic Communication." International Journal of Communication 21.2: 5-26.

Mikalayeva, Liudmila. 2012. "Reporting under International Conventions: a Genre Analysis." The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 7.3: 287-312.

Mikalayeva, Liudmila. 2015. "Follow-ups in Pre-structured Communication: the Case of Treaty Monitoring." In Elda Weizman and Anita Fetzer (Eds): Follow-ups in political discourse. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins: 231-262.

Phillips, Nelson, and Namrata Malhotra. 2008. "Taking social construction seriously: Extending the discursive approach in institutional theory." The Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism: 702-720.

Schmidt, Vivien. 2008. "Discursive institutionalism: The explanatory power of ideas and discourse." Annual Review of Political Science 11: 303-326.

Suchman, Mark C. 1995. "Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches." Academy of management review 20.3: 571-610.

Trondal, Jarle, Martin Marcussen, Torbjörn Larsson, and Frode Veggeland. 2010. Unpacking International Organizations: The Dynamics of Compound Bureaucracies. Manchester University Press.