Lowest Common Denominator Norm Institutionalization: The Anti-coup Norm at the United Nations.

Author:Tansey, Oisin
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

AFTER THE END OF THE COLD WAR, STATES AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIzations embraced a range of new tools to promote democratic norms and practices. As part of this push, many states adopted powerful legal instruments to institutionalize a new "anti-coup norm" that would delegitimize and punish leaders who seized power through coups d'etat. Regional organizations in Africa and the Americas led the way in consolidating a new sanctions regime related to coup behavior and demonstrated a willingness to take robust enforcement measures against states where the norm has been violated. (1) However, although there is increasing evidence that these measures have had some important effects in deterring coup attempts and reducing the number of successful coups, (2) the norm has struggled to gain global acceptance. While there have been isolated moments when the international community has spoken with one voice to champion the norm (especially through resolutions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly), the norm has yet to be universally adopted or reliably enforced. Several regional organizations have essentially ignored it, and the United Nations has remained consistently inconsistent in its treatment of coup-created governments. The anti-coup norm is not yet a truly global norm. (3)

In this article, I examine the uneven evolution of the anti-coup norm by tracing its fate within the United Nations system. In doing so, I illustrate not only the important role played by UN member states and internal agencies, but also a set of political processes that have wider implications for how we understand international efforts to enforce international norms. Contemporary international norms are rarely enforced universally, especially when they relate to the behavior of nation-state governments within their own jurisdictions. Frequently, the international actors that publicly embrace particular norms fail to respond robustly to violations of the norm or respond in highly inconsistent ways. (4) In turn, such behavior frustrates those who are truly committed to the norm and often prompts them to seek deeper international commitment to the norm through new forms of norm institutionalization. This gives rise to a cycle in which norm entrepreneurs fight to have a norm embraced, only to watch as it goes unenforced, and then fight again for deeper norm consolidation.

The story of the anti-coup norm at the UN illustrates the way in which international organizations can be the key site of negotiations over norm enforcement and development, and it also suggests an important role for individual international bureaucrats acting within larger intergovernmental organizations. When member states are united, they can work together to forge new binding conditions that apply to all states. When such consensus is lacking, however, norm promoters working within international organizations (IOs) must often pursue forms of norm institutionalization that do not require intergovernmental agreement. As a result, they must pursue what I call "lowest common denominator" norm institutionalization, which involves seeking to achieve the highest level of institutionalization that is achievable, even if it means aiming for a lower level of progress than norm promoters would ideally like. These lower-order strategies may involve the reform (or creation) of rules and standard operating procedures that apply to the agencies and staff within the bureaucratic arms of an 10 while leaving member states with the autonomy to pursue divergent policies in the intergovernmental spheres.

The fate of the anti-coup norm at the United Nations shows how officials within the UN system sought to compensate for the lack of consensus among member states by pursuing this kind of low-level institutionalization, relying primarily on amendments to UN rules and procedures. In the absence of member state consensus on the anti-coup norm, norm promoters within the Secretariat were able to make progress by pursuing change at a lower level of institutionalization, introducing new rules and procedures that would apply to UN staff and that would bring about more consistency across the bureaucratic agencies of the UN system.

The article proceeds as follows. First, I examine the nature of selective norm enforcement and illustrate the strategies of norm institutionalization that can foster greater consistency of enforcement. Then I look at the history of the anti-coup norm at the UN since the end of the Cold War and show the highly selective treatment of the norm within the UN system. Finally, I analyze strategies of norm institutionalization pursued by Secretariat staff at the United Nations and highlight the important role of norm entrepreneurs within the UN bureaucracy.

Norm Enforcement and Institutionalization

Norms are collective expectations about standards of behavior that are defined in terms of rights and obligations. (5) According to Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink's influential "life cycle" of norm evolution, norms go through a number of stages before they are fully embraced and consistently guide behavior. The first stage of the cycle is norm emergence, in which norm entrepreneurs (often working from positions within formal international organizations) promote new normative standards and persuade others to adopt them. The second stage involves norm cascade, where a tipping point is reached and countries rapidly begin to adopt the new norm even in the absence of direct pressure. The third stage is internalization, where actors conform with the norm without thinking. (6)

The extent to which norms actually constrain behavior thus varies in part according to the stage of normative development, and new norms are less likely to be consistently adhered to than those in the later stages of the norm life cycle. Prior to the full internalization of norms, responses to the violation of international norms are often characterized by inconsistency and selectivity. As defined in much of the literature on norm enforcement, consistency requires that similar cases are treated in the same way and that norm violations of a similar kind are subject to similar responses. (7) Yet many well-developed international norms are enforced in partial and inconsistent ways. After the end of the Cold War, international organizations increasingly embraced and institutionalized a range of norms designed to promote and protect democracy around the world, including norms related to seizures of power through coups. (8) Yet when it comes to democracy-related norms, states and IOs have tended to treat similar cases in different ways depending on the circumstances. International actors punish perpetrators of election fraud in some cases, but not others. (9) Violent repression of opposition forces is sometimes met with international sanctions (as in the case of Zimbabwe), whereas similar violations elsewhere receive comparatively less international attention (as in the case of Azerbaijan). (10) Coups are condemned and punished in some settings but downplayed or even praised in others. (11)

One of the ways in which these forms of inconsistency can be overcome is through the process of norm institutionalization, which entails greater regulation of the behavior of key actors. (12) As Finnemore and Sikkink note, "Institutionalization contributes strongly to the possibility for a norm cascade both by clarifying what, exactly, the norm is and what constitutes violation (often a matter of some disagreement among actors) and by spelling out specific procedures by which norm leaders coordinate disapproval and sanctions for norm breaking." (13) Institutionalization contributes to clarity regarding triggers for enforcement and the types of enforcement measures to be used and thus, in theory at least, facilitates more consistent responses to norm-violating behavior.

Norms can be institutionalized in international politics via a range of instruments, from informal agreements and commitments to more formal rules and procedures and, ultimately, binding legal provisions. If norms are institutionalized with high levels of legalization, we should expect to see lower levels of inconsistency in several respects as hard rules limit states' room for maneuver. (14) By contrast, if norms are not fully legalized and do not hold the status of hard law, we should expect to see greater levels of selective norm enforcement. Robust legalization requires high levels of international consensus and political will among a large number of states and is thus difficult to attain when the norms in question are politically sensitive or controversial. When it comes to issues like political freedom and democracy, where global normative consensus is low and norm contestation is a frequent characteristic of international debates, various forms of inconsistency are to be expected. (15)

Yet even where legalization levels are relatively low and international consensus is a distant prospect, there is still a variety of institutionalization strategies that norm promoters may pursue to reduce inconsistency in norm enforcement. Within international organizations such as the UN, individual members of the organizational bureaucracy can help compensate for a lack of member state agreement by pursuing rule changes that affect 10 staff rather than IO member states. Such actions highlight the capacity of IOs to operate independently of their member states. A key strand of scholarship on IOs has noted that the presence of a supranational bureaucracy is a key source of their independence, as agencies and actors can wield authority and influence that is independent of the mandates handed to them by member states. (16)

Examining the role of 10 bureaucrats makes it possible to identify the ways in which norms are sometimes institutionalized within IOs behind closed doors. Those who work within 10 secretariats are often political actors who are committed to...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP