The Power of International Legal Personality

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UNU Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies
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UNU-CRIS Working Paper
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Traditionally, sovereign states were the only international legal persons recognized by public international law. Only legal persons can enter into formal international legal relations. However, the emergence of intergovernmental organizations over the past sixty years has considerably changed the horizontal structure of inter-state relations. The United Nations and the World Trade Organization have not only acquired legal personality but have also enacted new rules for international law governing state behavior. Regional organizations, such as the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have gained greater influence over the direction of inter-state collaboration and dispute resolution. Interestingly, major regional organizations have not explicitly claimed to possess international legal personality until very recently. This essay advances a conceptual framework that seeks to advance understanding of the purpose and relevance of international legal personality in regional organizations. It first sets out the philosophical and legal foundations of international legal personality, and it distinguishes between the juridical and political aspects of personality. Full international legal personality refers to the unity of both legal and political recognition (by other international legal persons) of an entity‟s capacity to represent its constituents externally and impose constraints on them internally. The possession of legal personality, as recognized by international legal sources, does not necessarily endow a regional organization with the power to exercise that personality in the political sense. The ability of regional organizations to project themselves as largely unitary artificial persons is currently obscured by the powerful sovereign states that dominate them. While the assertion of explicit international legal personality does not automatically lead to dramatic changes in a regional organization‟s role in international politics, it represents a genuine and continuous shift by states to tolerate integration processes that were previously seen as threats to the core of their sovereignty.

International Legal Personality, Regional Organizations, EU, ASEAN