Since World War II, international organizations – entities like the African Union, Arab League, Council of Europe and the Commonwealth – have suspended member states ninety-five times. While some intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) suspend states after financial, economic, or military violations, the vast majority of IGO suspensions happen in response to political backsliding – such as human rights violations, coups democratic recession, or flawed elections. For example, Mercosur suspended Venezuela in 2017 after Nicolás Maduro delayed elections, jailed opposition activists, and pressed to overhaul the constitution. This seems like a natural move for an IGO whose charter includes commitments to minimal political or democratic standards: when member states violate such an IGO commitment, the IGO presumably suspends them from the organization. At least that is what much research has assumed in the past.
However, the number of IGO suspensions pales in comparison to the hundreds of state violations of organizations’ mandates. In particular, many states get away with backsliding on their commitments to democracy and human rights even though a large number of IGOs condition membership on these principles. The recent cases of Poland and Hungary in the European Union come to mind. IGOs also react differently to the same backsliding. For example, the Organization of American States (OAS) failed to even pass a formal declaration condemning Venezuela’s government for its handling of the political crisis.
These contrasting examples present a puzzle. Member states’ political backsliding is common (occurring in around nineteen states each year) and yet punishment in the form of IGO suspension is exceedingly rare (only one in nineteen violators are suspended). This is surprising given that international relations scholars argue that IGOs help entrench domestic political standards via (the threat of) suspension. If organizations tie governments’ hands via (the threat of) suspension, then why are some political backsliders suspended from IGOs while others are not?
In an article accepted for publication at International Studies Quarterly, we argue IGO suspensions following political backsliding are uneven because geopolitical leverage and institutional rules create veto points. Specifically, violator countries that are rich in oil resources are less likely to face punishment. Strict IGO voting rules and membership size can also create veto points that protect violators from suspension. Thus, countries protected by their geopolitical influence or institutional rules are more likely to politically backslide without being suspended.
To be sure, the possibility of forced exit can generate a credible commitment if suspensions do happen some of the time. But governments looking at the empirical record may come to the same conclusion we do: that powerful states in clubs with restrictive voting rules can often get away with political backsliding and still retain their IGO membership benefits.
Dr. Inken von Borzyskowski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science. Learn more about her work at www.borzyskowski.net/.
Her co-author, Dr. Felicity Vabulas, is an Assistant Professor at Pepperdine University.
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