Role of NGOs in International Law

By – Vishal Patidar


Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been active at an unprecedented degree on the global scale in recent times. NGOs always played an important role in determining global relations, affecting international rule-making, and assisting in the enforcement of international standards. The history of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contributing to international law is outstanding. “The Geneva Convention of 1864”, “the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, and “the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species” are only a few of the conventions affected by NGOs’ pressure on international legislators. Since the 1990s, both academicians and international bodies have increasingly accepted the concept that NGOs’ engagement in international law-making gives international laws more democratic accountability. They have proved to be a motivating factor behind some of the most significant changes to the international order (such as forming a permanent International Criminal Court) and important partners in the day-to-day implementation of rights, norms and programmes. The number of NGOs present at the international level, notably in UN bodies and procedures, goes up and up, and international legal frameworks are progressively changing to facilitate this trend. Worldwide civic society, on the other hand, continues to be a contentious notion in international law. The new avenues that NGOs have to engage in international legal governance mechanisms across the UN demonstrate the conflicts that arise about the scope, importance, and advantages of these participants’ involvement in the international realm, as well as the deficiencies of established international legislations procedures and systems.

Historical Background of Non-Governmental Organization

To understand the role of NGOs in International law first we need to emphasize how these organizations have evolved in the past. Non-governmental organizations have been around since at least 1839. By 1914, there have been projected to be 1083 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played a major role in the anti-slavery and women’s liberation movements, reaching a pinnacle around the moment of the “World Disarmament Conference”. However, the term “non-governmental organization” only became widespread after the United Nations Organization was established in 1945, with rules in Article 71 of Chapter 10 of the “United Nations Charter” allowing organizations that are neither nations nor member countries to have a supportive role. The importance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other “major groups” in sustainable growth was acknowledged in Chapter 27 of Agenda 21, which resulted in extensive provisions for an advisory partnership between the UN and non-governmental organizations. As a response to welfare state reform, the non-governmental organizations grew rapidly in western nations. After the demise of the communist regime, that approach was further globalized, and it was an essential element of the Washington consensus. The relevance of NGOs grew over the twentieth century as a result of globalization. Many issues could not be resolved inside a single country. International agreements and organizations, like the World Trade Organization, were seen as being overly focused on the concerns of capitalist corporations. Some say that NGOs have evolved to priorities humanitarian problems, developmental assistance, and sustainable growth to offset this tendency. The World Social Forum, a rival conference to the World Economic Forum annual event in January in Davos, Switzerland, is a good illustration of this. Delegates from almost 1,000 NGOs participated in the fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005. A few have claimed that NGOs usurp the role of what should be left to impoverished people’s social movements in venues such as these. Others say that NGOs are frequently colonialist in character, that they work in a racist manner in 3rd-world nations, and that they serve a similar purpose to the priests during the late colonial period.

NGOs and their Legal Status

Historically, NGOs began to emerge towards the close of World War I. Ever since, they had gained greater importance in the international arena as a result of their activities, which have influenced several agreements on a range of topics. The “United Nations Charter” was signed on June 26th, 1945, just after World War 2, and article 71 of that Charter is credited for coining the term “non-governmental organizations.” The issue of describing NGOs is complicated by the fact that multiple definitions appear in diverse areas of international legislation. In international law, there is no widely recognized definition of the expression “non-governmental organization.” Every field of legislation that deals with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has its interpretation.

The sociological approach and the legal approach are the two primary approaches to defining NGO. The first is influenced by social player research and attempts to define the word by studying the makeup and roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the international arena. The legal approach, on the other hand, focuses on the legal standing of NGOs in the domestic environment as well as the consequences for international law. NGOs have still not been recognized by countries as having international legal status, even though governments have tried to govern and describe crucial relationships in the international arena by adopting agreements and conventions. Despite several attempts to describe NGOs and formalize their legal position, no generally accepted international agreement on the constitution and legality of NGOs has yet to be established. Even though NGOs are increasingly involved in international affairs and negotiation processes, concerns regarding their legal standing and what distinguishes them remain unanswered.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognized the potential of acknowledging entities apart from countries in the “Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations” case (Advisory Opinion of 11 April 1949). The ICJ determined that the “subjects of the law in any legal system are not necessarily identical or in the extent of their rights, and their nature may depend upon the needs of the community. Throughout its history, the development of international law has been influenced by the requirements of international life, and the progressive increase in the collective activities of States has already given rise to instances of action upon the international plane by certain entities which are not States”.

The ICJ eventually elaborated on this idea in the LA Grand case (Germany v. the United States of America, 2001). Besides that, Giorgio Gaja, the “Special Rapporteur of the International Law Commission” (First Report on International Organizations Responsibility), stated that the ICJ’s initiative of acknowledging people as subjects of international law could lead the Court to “assert the legal personality even of non-governmental organizations.”

According to the report, “States appreciate NGO participation in global negotiation processes and have provided limited accreditation at the national scale, but they have not yet settled on a norm for NGOs functioning in the global realm.” It seems incredible that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may participate in international events and are welcomed to do so while still having an ambiguous position and classification in international law.

Role of NGO in International Law

Such measures provided by international organizations have resulted in a massive increase in NGO engagement in the global decision-making framework over the decades. The trend of advising non-governmental organizations (NGOs) grew fast and continues to grow. Even though NGO advisory role in UN policymaking is provided by Article 71 of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council remained closed to NGOs until 1997, whereupon they started to have talks with council members. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council held direct discussions with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) about the role of civil society in post-conflict rebuilding. NGOs have minimal chances to engage in international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On the other side, the World Trade Organization (WTO) continues to oppose formally implementing an NGO participation procedure. When it comes to influencing the international legal system, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) usually start by urging governments to formalize international standards. This frequently leads to what legal experts refer to as “soft law,” which mostly consists of statements and resolutions with little legal power. Soft law allows NGOs to readily intervene and acquire influence because it is primarily declaratory, not legally enforceable, and therefore flexible. When the statutory extent of their duty is limited, nations are more inclined to comply with international legal rules. As a result, several NGOs feel that these principles statements might serve as a legal foundation for future “hard law” standards. As a result, many legal experts think that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played an essential role in making international law more receptive to the demands of the global community.

Acquiring even informal political affirmations is a lot for several NGOs and intergovernmental organizations because these “given words and expressions” may subsequently be exploited and popularized to push them into more official forums and finally transform them into legally enforceable documents. When international standards become legally binding, NGOs must continue to act as watchdogs and monitors to assure that they are implemented in the manner in which they were agreed, or that they are understood in a way that promotes the implementation of legal rights. In this approach, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contribute to the development of a universal legal conscience, as well as a sense of allegiance to and adherence to a set of principles.

Amnesty International: Termination of Abuse and Violence Against Women

Amnesty International the largest operational Human Rights Organization has been continuously working towards mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on governments where there is abuse. Amnesty International raises awareness about human rights violations and initiatives for international laws and standards to be accompanied. The organization has initiated a campaign for violence against women. Let us see how the NGO has been working to bring the required regulations in the realms of international law. Amnesty International launches a worldwide campaign to end violence towards women on March 5, 2004, based on the notion of protecting women. This initiative is based on the concept of violence towards women in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, which states that violence against women is defined as: “any procedure which causes psychological, sexual or psychological harm, injury or suffering to women, including forced or wilful deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

Amnesty International’s program aims at eliminating violence against women, from domestic abuse to violence towards women in wars and conflicts, the two deadliest domains of violence in which millions of women throughout the world are struggling. By launching this campaign, Amnesty International is fighting for the inclusion of violence towards women across all existing rights as well as providing legal protection to every type of violence, as well as ending gender discrimination. This way the international NGOs put pressure on the international community for bringing in the much-needed change in the ambit of International Law.


NGOs are becoming inescapable players in the development, formulation, and enforcement of international standards in the early twenty-first century. Furthermore, as the representative of transnational civil society, they have contributed to making international law more accessible to the masses. International law has, as is widely known, emerged as a law moulded entirely by nations. As a result, states are the most important stakeholders in their development and execution. However, as the number of participants in the international order has grown, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been recognized as having certain legal standing under international law, based on their specific position in international affairs. International law continues to be founded on nations cooperating through international bodies. However, the rising significance of multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations in the international order is one of the distinctive aspects of the current period of globalization. They may no longer need to be separated from the sphere of international law parties to determine real rights and obligations under international law and their universal obligation. Indeed, specific norms, such as a legislative framework of self-regulation or a structure of government regulation, are required to establish the international obligation of NGOs. International relations and international law have been affected by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They advocate and promote civil society’s concerns, allowing for diverse international cooperation. In the globalization age, NGOs, therefore, represent society in the international order. NGO’s contribution to global administration by participating in the development and execution of laws. Furthermore, they may face nations in an attempt to establish a shared worldwide interest that has been overlooked by international organizations. The more international law permits NGOs to engage actively in the development of international law, the nearer they will be to acquiring legal personality.

Vishal Patidar is a first-year law student at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management    Studies (NMIMS) Navi Mumbai campus, currently pursuing a BA.LL. B (Hons).

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