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Study Lead, follow or get out of the way? International secretariats in comparative perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2016

Carlos Closa
Affiliation:
European University Institute, Florence
Lorenzo Casini
Affiliation:
Università degli Studi di Roma 'La Sapienza', Italy
Omri Sender
Affiliation:
George Washington University
Omri Sender
Affiliation:
George Washington University, Washington DC
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Summary

Introduction

Secretariats are the central organs of modern international organizations, so much so that they are often mistaken for the organizations themselves. At times referred to as “bureaus” or “commissions,” they are in fact the permanent administrative bodies of such organizations, primarily responsible for coordinating their day-to-day work and executing much of their will. Although the international secretariat is, indeed, only one component of a broader institutional set-up created by the enabling agreement that is reached among the relevant parties (most often, States), it is “the organizational glue that holds the actors and parts of a treaty system together.” With multilateral responsibility as the principle underlying its work, the secretariat is ultimately a “guardian of the agenda” adopted by the founding or controlling State actors, providing the international organization with continuity and a consistent, recognizable profile in the global arena. Traditionally, the role of secretariats has been limited to performing tasks of a technical-clerical nature, in particular facilitating the creation of the new international regime of which they form a part; mobilization of information; internal management; norm enforcement (through compliance monitoring); and direct service provision. In the modern era, however, secretariats commonly perform policy-related functions as well, increasingly exerting influence and employing technocratic expertise. Rather than merely executing the agenda of the international regime that they serve, they are now often asked to take a substantive part in shaping it.

The gradual rise in the importance of secretariats within many international organizations has led to a greater focus on their role as “public nonstate actors” whose work is a form of “invisible governance.” After decades of being widely perceived as a minor feature of international cooperation and attracting only a marginal interest of scholars, secretariats are now of growing significance to international relations theory, international institutional law and political science at large, having won recognition as international actors in their own right, who, “rather than acting like a concierge, are more like the managers of the hotel, still concerned with the comfort of guests but also with turning a profit.” Their sharper visibility has also prompted a debate on whether, and to what extent, secretariats are vital to the effective functioning of international regimes.

Type
Chapter
Information
Comparative Regional Integration
Governance and Legal Models
, pp. 247 - 464
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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