Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)

Eric Brahm

March 2005

R. Scott Appleby, John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at University of Notre Dame, describes a recent UN conference on religion and tolerance.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have become increasingly prominent both in facilitating conflict resolution between states, but also in dealing with intractable conflicts within states. They serve a number of basic functions that enhance the possibility of cooperation. Created after World War I, the League of Nations was an early attempt to systematize third party mediation in international conflict. However, it proved too weak because important states did not join, which limited its ability to function. After World War II, the United Nations was created and, although it worked better than the League of Nations, the Cold War impeded its effectiveness for many years. Following the end of the Cold War, the UN has taken on new roles, and regional organizations around the world have also become more active. Growing activism from these organizations, however, does not mean that they operate flawlessly. This essay will briefly review the general purpose of IGOs in minimizing interstate conflict and then proceed to discuss their expanded roles in dealing with the internal conflicts of sovereign states.

General Issues

Intergovernmental organizations are constructed by states to facilitate cooperation.[1] The primary utility of IGOs lies in providing states with a forum which they can use to negotiate conflicts.[2] IGOs are also useful to states in a number of additional ways.

  • First, by providing a forum for discussion, they make it less costly for states to discuss issues with one another.
  • Second, IGOs often serve as information providers. The enhanced transparency helps to minimize misperceptions.
  • Third, IGOs help to facilitate issue linkages, which may facilitate cooperation.
  • Fourth, IGOs help allow states to take a long-term perspective, which makes them less concerned about immediate payoffs.
  • Fifth, the multilateral nature of IGOs lends an air of impartiality that enhances their effectiveness.[3]

United Nations

Clearly, the most prominent IGO involved in conflict resolution is the United Nations (UN). The UN became the primary venue for diffusing international conflict in the post-World War II period. The growing role of the United Nations is internal, rather than international, conflict in the 1990s resulted from a curious interpretation of its own charter, which has exposed internal contradictions within the charter itself. Central to the UN contradiction is the contrast between the UN's support for national sovereignty and self-determination, and its involvement in the internal conflicts of other nations.

For instance, the UN Charter's Chapter VI gives the UN a number of mechanisms for facilitating conflict resolution, namely fact-finding, good offices, conciliation, mediation, and negotiation. Additionally, Chapter VII provides the basis for the use of coercion and force to maintain peace and security. Finally, Chapter VIII encourages activism on the part of regional organizations in bringing about peace. The UN possesses an unparalleled collection of agencies to address various aspects of conflict and humanitarian situations.

"First Generation" UN Activities

The UN's mission has, in fact, changed dramatically in the past decade. Prior to this period, the role of the UN was much more limited. The UN became involved in supporting transitions, namely decolonization processes, early on. The first UN transitional authority mission was in Dutch West New Guinea in 1962-63. However, the unfavorable experience in the Congo in 1960-64 made the UN reluctant to take on other such multifunctional operations, as it was not fully prepared to provide the central authority that was needed.[4] Throughout most of its history, the UN's mission in maintaining peace typically involved interposing its forces between two states that had willingly agreed to the UN presence. However, these missions did not so much resolve the conflict as to often freeze it in place, perhaps prolonging it in the long run.[5] UN Missions rarely created the conditions necessary for peace. What is more, the Cold War standoff between the Soviet Union and United States was reflected in the UN Security Council. As a result, UN involvement was often not forthcoming due to broader superpower politics.

As changes began to take place in the Soviet Union, much hope was raised that the UN would take a more active role in the world. Established in 1988, the United Nations Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan (UNGOMAP) signaled a new direction for the UN, as its mission was to monitor the implementation of a political settlement. Aside from the changing global political climate that was making Security Council cooperation more likely, mission successes helped to build confidence within the UN. An important turning point was the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia, which was established in 1989 to aid South Africa in facilitating Namibia's transition to independence. The mission gave the UN experience in guiding a transition process as well as preparing for and conducting elections. Another significant action was the 1992-3 UN mission in Cambodia (UNTAC), which was much more extensive and challenging. One of the main problems with this mission was that local authorities were resistant and the UN could not enforce its will. The UN mandate in Somalia ran into problems because it was predicated on the existence of a centralized authority that did not exist.

Second and Third Generation Missions

Subsequent UN operations have gone in many new and interesting directions. Table 1 summarizes UN missions since the beginning of the 1990s. Some are so-called first-generation missions, such as monitoring the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait. Others are second and third-generation missions, which have been much more involved with internal conflict resolution and peacebuilding. These missions have ranged from supervising ceasefires within member states and delivering humanitarian supplies to helping transitions toward independence and democracy by overseeing implementation of comprehensive peace accords, institution building, and conducting elections.

Second generation missions are characterized by UN involvement in guiding peace settlements among combatants in civil conflict who have willingly entered into negotiation.[6] Third generation missions, by contrast, involve interposing the UN in the midst of ongoing conflicts. These third-generation operations were prompted by the resurgence of ethnic and cultural conflict suppressed by the Cold War. These missions have been launched where peace does not exist, but where international will exists to support humanitarian assistance while attempts are made to find a political solution to the conflict. Although efforts have focused on humanitarian relief rather than brokering a comprehensive settlement, the lack of central authority that often accompanies these situations has led the UN to become more deeply involved in internal conflicts, to the point of providing an interim civilian administration in Kosovo.


Table 1: UN Missions 1990-2000s

1991-Present UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) Monitor demilitarized zone in Iraq
1991-5 UN Angola Verification Mission II (UNAVEM II) Help implement peace accord
1991-5 UN Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) Peace verification, election monitoring
1991-Present UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) Implement ceasefire, conduct referendum
1991-2 UN Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC) Prepare way for UNTAC
1992-5 UN Protection Force Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) Humanitarian relief, monitoring
1992-3 UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) Implement peace accord
1992-3 UN Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I) Humanitarian relief, monitor ceasefire
1992-4 UN Operation in Mozambique (ONUMOZ) Oversee peace accord
1993-5 UN Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) Humanitarian relief, institution building
1993-4 UN Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) Monitor border
1993-Present UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
1993-7 UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
1993-6 UN Mission in Haiti (UNMIH) Aid transition
1993-6 UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) Humanitarian relief, monitor ceasefire
1994 UN Aouzou Strip Observer Group (UNASOG) Monitor Chad-Libyan border
1994-2000 UN Mission of Observers in Tajikistan (UNMOT) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
1995-7 UN Angola Verification Mission III (UNAVEM III) Humanitarian relief, monitor ceasefire
1995-6 UN Confidence Restoration Operation in Croatia (UNCRO) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
1995-9 UN Preventive Deployment Force Macedonia (UNPREDEP) Prevent conflict from spreading
1995-Present UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH) Implement peace accord, humanitarian relief
1996-8 UN Transitional Administration for E. Slavonia, Baranja, W. Sirmium (UNTAES) Manage integration of regions into Croatia
1996-Present UN Mission of Observers in Prevlaka (UNMOP) Monitor Croat-Yugoslav border
1996-7 UN Support Mission in Haiti (UNSMIH) Institution building
1997 UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) Monitor peace accord
1997-9 UN Observer Mission in Angola (MONUA) Monitor peace accord
1997 UN Transition Mission in Haiti (UNTMIH) Conduct election, institution building
1997-2000 UN Civilian Police Mission in Haiti (MIPONUH) Training, institution building
1998-2000 UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINURCA) Monitor ceasefire of civil conflict
1998-9 UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
1999-Present UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) Monitor ceasefire, administration
1999-Present UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) Monitor peace accord
1999-2002 UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) Oversee transition to independence
1999-Present UN Organization Mission in DRC (MONUC) Monitor ceasefire of civil war
2000-Present UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) Monitor border, ceasefire
2002-Present UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) Administrative assistance

Under the leadership of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, the office of the UN Secretary-General has become more active in mediation efforts around the world. It has done so with the help of assistants to the Secretary-General as well as other special representatives. Despite being formally at the service of the General Assembly and Security Council, the Secretary-General has significant discretionary power. The Secretary-General has used his authority to engage in diplomacy, acting as mediator and authorizing provisional missions ahead of Security Council authorization. Unfortunately, although the Security Council remains the primary actor for the maintenance of international peace and security, its record during the 1990s indicates that the UN often reacts to crises, rather than acting to prevent crises. With its independent stature, the Secretary-General's office has the potential to shape the nature of debates regarding preventive action and to forward the cause of peace by being aggressive in drawing the attention of the Security Council to specific cases requiring preventive action.[7] This goal has been aided by new initiatives, including the so-called Friends of the Secretary-General, which refers to informal, ad hoc multilateral diplomatic channels used to support initiatives by the Secretary-General.

Regardless of what role the Secretary-General's office is able to play, second and third generation missions require more active management on the part of the Security Council. The unique authority and power of the Security Council also leaves it with disproportionate responsibility for responding to crises. The challenge posed by second and third generation missions is that they require long-term commitments. Throughout the 1990s, there generally was great enthusiasm for the UN to take upon itself these new roles. However, what has been less reliable is commitment on behalf of Member States to increase contributions and support institutional change to allow the United Nations to conduct the peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions that have been asked of it. What is more, Member States must also recognize that the possibility of encountering violence is real, and be determined to confront violent situations.[8] In the post-Cold War period, the UN has had mixed success in such missions. The determining factor has not been the UN itself but rather the commitment of Security Council members and the nature of the conflict itself.[9] In situations where all sides of the conflict were interested in resolution and resources were available to see the mission through, the UN has been remarkably successful.

After the UN's experiences in the early 1990s, it became apparent that the traditional mode of UN peacekeeping was not effective in new contexts. The nature of these more recent missions was that UN troops were being inserted into conflicts where fighting was still underway. To prevent conflicts from spreading further, some have advocated the creation of a rapid reaction force,[10] but these complex multifunctional forces suffer from several shortcomings. They are often poorly planned, a factor that is more crucial as missions become more complex. Organizational structure is often weak because conflicting interests exist within the force. In addition, civil and military roles are not clearly linked. The UN also remains significantly dependent upon the resources and expertise of Member States. All of these problems are compounded by the fact that missions are fundamentally dependent upon the goodwill of locals as well as Member States.

Peacebuilding Missions

Peacebuilding missions in the 1990s are broad and varied in content. Generally speaking, some or all of the following may be incorporated into a particular peacebuilding mission: disarming parties and restoring order, destroying weapons, repatriating refugees, training police, monitoring elections, enhancing efforts to protect human rights, improving and expanding political participation, and strengthening and reforming government institutions. These operations, however, have been criticized on a number of fronts.[11]

  • First, it is important to identify which services are better targeted to national elites versus local leaders, a step that is sometimes neglected.
  • Second, there is disagreement as to whether economic or psychological and social factors should have more emphasis in UN missions.
  • Third, it is argued that missions would be more effective if they were extended for a much longer time frame.
  • Fourth, it has been said that greater care must be taken in determining who the intervening actor should be.
  • Fifth, some argue that peacebuilding is a Western concept and question the applicability of these efforts in non-Western contexts.
  • Sixth, and finally, is the debate as to what role, if any, force can and should play in UN missions.

Summarizing the situation, Malan argues:

In certain circumstances, it seems as if the UN will be doomed if it does act, and damned if it does not act. At the heart of this dilemma is the apparent contradiction of pursuing both humanitarian and political goals in a single mission. While this great variety of actors compounds the problem of co-ordination within UN peace missions, humanitarian action has also become the substitute for UN peacekeeping when conditions are not perceived as right for the deployment of troops.[12]


The Role of Regional Organizations

Recognizing that the UN lacked resources and local expertise to fully deal with new types of missions, Boutros-Ghali led an effort to give primacy to regional organizations in dealing with many conflicts. During the Cold War, regional organizations served as a substitute for the UN when superpower conflict hampered the functioning of the Security Council. The current trend appears to be that the UN seems willing to hand over responsibility for peace and security to any form of "coalition of the willing." The UN itself reached this conclusion in a recent report, saying:

The United Nations does not have, at this point in its history, the institutional capacity to conduct military enforcement measures under Chapter VII (of the UN Charter). Under present conditions, ad hoc Member States coalitions of the willing offer the most effective deterrent to aggression or to the escalation or spread of an ongoing conflict ... The Organisation still lacks the capacity to implement rapidly and effectively decisions of the Security Council calling for the dispatch of peacekeeping operations in crisis situations. Troops for peacekeeping missions are in some cases not made available by Member States or made available under conditions that constrain effective response. Peacemaking and human rights operations, as well as peacekeeping operations, also lack a secure financial footing, which has a serious impact on the viability of such operations.[13]

We may be seeing a division of labor emerging where police services become the domain of UN peace operations, while military operations are left largely to regional organizations or ad hoc arrangements. This fact is unlikely to alleviate concerns that missions often lack a sense of unity.[14] It does seem necessary for IGOs to take collective responsibility,[15] as the advantage of the UN is that it is a truly global voice and possesses a highly comprehensive set of institutions. At the same time, however, the developing world would like a clearer say in UN decision-making, and coordinating with regional organizations may be the most effective way for them to gain such influence.[16] Additionally, regional organizations are superior in being more familiar with local conditions, culture, and actors. They benefit from lower costs and faster response. Some argue that regional action often proves less objectionable because it is less likely the action will be seen as setting a precedent.[17] At the regional level, however, politics can lead to favoring one side over another. This perception often creates reluctance on the part of combatants to accept outside intrusion. Regional hegemons are also better able to manipulate more localized organizations.[18] What is more, most regional organizations are even more resource poor than the UN is, and the political willpower to act often is missing.[19] It may be true that regional organizations are most useful on the civilian side of peace operations, providing, for example, election or human monitors, in cooperation with the UN.[20] However, the ability of different regional organizations to respond to conflict varies a great deal.

Regional organizations have both expanded in number and, because many often overlap in a given territory, have increasingly begun to coordinate their activities. And, since the end of the Cold War, examples abound of regional organizations expanding their capacity to take on a mediation role:

  • The Organization of African Unity (OAU) -- now the African Union (AU) -- added a section to its Secretariat to aid in conflict resolution,
  • The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has established a new mediation role.
  • Within Africa, the Inter-Governmental Agency on Drought and Development (IGADD) in the Horn of Africa,
  • the Southern African Development Community (SADC),
  • the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and
  • the West African Economic Community (CEAO) has all mediated disputes within their respective regions.
  • NATO and ECOMOG (ECOWAS Peace Monitoring Group) are two groups that have engaged in peace enforcement.


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has gone farthest in working to construct common norms. It has been unique amongst most regional organizations in engaging in preventive diplomacy and peacebuilding operations. [21] What is more, it has established local offices to facilitate communication and provide advice.

Therefore, among all regional organizations, it has been able to minimize potential infighting amongst the membership as to how to deal with problems. The OSCE has had modest goals and significant success in handling ethnopolitical conflicts in Eastern Europe.[22]


The Organization of African Unity (OAU) which morphed into the African Union (AU), on the other hand, has had limited success in dealing with regional conflict, as members are very sensitive about the protection of sovereignty. Despite the creation of new powers and a formal dispute mechanism, the OAU/AU has been largely ineffective in managing African conflicts such as those in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Comoros. The organization has been preoccupied with efforts to resolve existing conflicts rather than trying to foresee and prevent new ones. Despite the creation of the mechanism, the OAU/AU has been an active but peripheral actor in most cases.[23] The UN and sub-regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have often taken the lead in managing conflicts in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Lesotho, and DRC. The AU's marginal role thus far can be attributed to it being new and inexperienced in the field of conflict management, the sheer overwhelming scope of conflict across the continent, and longstanding financial, organizational, and mandate issues from the pre-1993 era.[24] Other regional organizations are working to enhance their ability to respond. For example, ECOWAS and SADC are working to develop early warning capabilities.

Other Regional Organizations

Other examples exhibit mixed results. The Organization of American States (OAS) generally does not interfere in the internal workings of members, but has worked in conjunction with the UN to promote conflict resolution. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has sought to avoid involvement in members' internal affairs, but has developed a capacity for consensus building. Since 1990, ECOWAS has been active in West Africa. Since July 1992, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have been active in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan. The European Union was paralyzed by internal disagreement on how to respond to Yugoslavia, and NATO proved useful there when the UN Security Council could not agree on a course of action. It was NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR) that took over from the over-extended UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia at the end of 1995 that has brought regional peace operations to the forefront. NATO's mission in Bosnia and the Italian-led OSCE operation in Albania also served as models of regional organizations stepping in where the UN lacks the capability or the will to act.[25]

[1] There is debate within international relations as to the utility of international organizations beyond the powerful state that backs it with some seeing them driven by a dominant power, or hegemon, and others as the result of reasoned self-interested bargaining by states. See, for example, Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After hegemony: cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Mearsheimer, John J. 1995. The False Promise of International Institutions. International Security 19 (3):5-49.

[2] See, for example, Oye, Kenneth A., ed. 1986. Cooperation under anarchy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[3] Doyle 2001, p. 546.

[4] Chopra, Jarat. 1995. UN civil governance-in-trust. In Weiss, Thomas G., Ed. The United Nations and civil wars: Emerging global issues. Boulder , Colo., L. Rienner Publishers.

[5] Ratner, Steven R. 1995. The New UN Peacekeeping. New York: St. Martin's Press.

[6] The League of Nations missions in the Saar Basin and Danzig could be considered precursors to second generation missions, Ratner 1995, op, cit.

[7] Cater, Charles K., & Wermester, Karin. 2000.From Reaction to Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System in the New Millennium

[8] Durch, William and Caroline Earle. 2000.Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations. August 2000, UN report A/55/305--S/2000/809,

[9] Miall, Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham, & Tom Woodhouse. 1999. Contemporary conflict resolution: the prevention, management, and transformation of deadly conflicts. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

[10] Mackinlay, John. 1995. Military responses to complex emergencies. In Weiss, Thomas G., Ed. The United Nations and civil wars: Emerging global issues. Boulder , Colo., L. Rienner Publishers.

[11] Miall, Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham, & Tom Woodhouse. 1999. Contemporary conflict resolution: the prevention, management, and transformation of deadly conflicts. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 198-200.

[12] Malan, 1998.

[13] UN Report on Reform, released 16 July 1997,

[14] Malan, 1998.

[15] Peck, Connie. 2001. The Role of Regional Organizations. In Crocker, Chester A., Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall, eds. Turbulent Peace: The Challenges of Managing International Conflict. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. Pp. 561-583.

[16] Refashioning the Dialogue: Regional Perspectives on the Brahimi Report on UN Operations Organization: International Peace Academy (IPA).

[17] Wedgwood, Ruth. 1996. Regional and Subregional Organizations in International Conflict Management. In Chester A. Crocker & Fen Osler Hampson with Pamela Aall, eds. Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace.

[18] Miall, Hugh, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse. 1999. Contemporary conflict resolution: the prevention, management, and transformation of deadly conflicts. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

[19] Fortna , Virginia Page. 1993. Regional Organizations and Peacekeeping. Occasional Paper 11, Henry L. Stimson Center. June. Wedgwood, Ruth. 1996. Regional and Subregional Organizations in International Conflict Management. In Chester A. Crocker & Fen Osler Hampson with Pamela Aall, eds. Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace.

[20] Fortna , Virginia Page. 1993. Regional Organizations and Peacekeeping. Occasional Paper 11, Henry L. Stimson Center. June.

[21] Peck, Connie. 2001. The Role of Regional Organizations. In Crocker, Chester A., Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall, eds. Turbulent Peace: The Challenges of Managing International Conflict. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. Pp. 561-583.

[22] Troebst, Stefan. 1998.Ethnopolitical Conflicts in Eastern Europe and the OSCE: An Interim Appraisal.

[23] Muyangwa, Monde, and Vogt, Margaret A. Assessment of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution, 1993-2000.

[24] Muyangwa, Monde, and Vogt, Margaret A. Assessment of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution, 1993-2000.

[25] Mark Malan. Peacekeeping in the New Millennium: Towards 'Fourth Generation' Peace Operations' African Security Review Vol 7, No. 3, 1998.


Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.


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