2. Strengthening the Implementation of International Instruments

For international instruments to have a concrete effect for their members and for citizens at large, they have to be implemented. Unimplemented instruments are not an efficient use of resources; they also affect the reputation of IOs individually and the credibility of the international system as a whole. However, conceptualising implementation of international instruments is particularly difficult. Broadly speaking, international instruments developed by international organisations aim to spur economic and social development in the broadest sense of the term and over a long period of time. While some have an aspirational dimension, they still need to be applied domestically to have a legal or practical effect. In practice, the ways in which this is pursued depends on each country’s constitutional and legal systems. In addition, the mostly voluntary nature of international instruments grants domestic regulatory authorities a certain degree of leeway in interpreting and adapting the international text to the domestic context.

Going beyond the particularities of the jurisdictions implementing international instruments, a broad notion of “implementation” of international instruments has two main components: i) their de jure incorporation and application in domestic legislation, and ii) their de facto use, such as in the inspection and enforcement practices or by private companies in their production process (Combacau and Sur, 2016[1]). The responsibility to implement instruments frequently falls largely or solely to those members and non-members which have adhered or committed to the instrument (OECD, 2019[2]). In some cases, end-users, whether businesses, non-governmental organisations or IO partners, apply instruments directly. However, there are a range of mechanisms through which IOs can support the wider and more effective implementation of their instruments, thereby helping their members and constituencies to better leverage the landscape of international normative instruments.

The primary objective of this section of the Compendium is to set out the mechanisms and practices through which IOs can advance the implementation of their instruments, and share experiences on their use. It is designed to provide a systematic toolkit to IOs, as well as a guide to members regarding available modes of support.

Broadly speaking, international instruments aim to improve the well-being of people worldwide by offering policy solutions in a range of different areas. And yet, to have a real impact on people’s everyday lives, they need to be made use of, applied, implemented. The implementation of international instruments should in principle generate the key benefits of international regulatory co-operation (IRC), such as inter alia: 1) greater effectiveness at a global level in cases where collective action is needed to achieve the policy and societal objectives, 2) administrative efficiency at the national level through the pooling of knowledge and expertise of the IO membership, and 3) economic efficiency by reducing the costs for businesses and citizens through standardisation of approaches, and the provision of legal predictability and greater certainty.

Implementation is thus an early step in the long causal chain that leads from IO instruments to successful problem-solving. Without effective implementation, the issue that international instruments sought to address in the first place remains unresolved. Their failed or uneven implementation risks casting doubt on the capacity of the international organisation to achieve its mandate and deliver high-quality instruments. More generally, by association, it could risk undermining the credibility of the international system and of collective action.

While the development of international instruments falls to IOs, the responsibility for their implementation is most often shared between IO secretariats and their members and constituencies (OECD, 2019[2]). Although IOs do not retain the key national and local implementation levers, they have an important responsibility in driving implementation by indirectly facilitating co-ordination among actors such as national regulators, business, or NGOs – rather than governing these actors directly. This responsibility is two-fold. On the one hand, in developing the international instruments IOs must ensure that they are sufficiently evidence-based and relevant to be fit for purpose and earn the trust of their members. On the other hand, IOs also have a key role in providing the relevant “accompanying infrastructure” to foster implementation, in terms of knowledge-sharing, guidance, advocacy, capacity building and support. Tracking the use of their instruments is also a sine qua non condition to assessing implementation challenges and improving their action over time.

With greater information on implementation, IOs can inform their rulemaking and strive for ever more relevant instruments. Indeed, with precise information on the use of international instruments, IOs can identify the improvements necessary for specific instruments and embed these lessons in revising them or in developing new ones (OECD, 2020[3]). This information can also support a more refined understanding on the uptake of instruments in different jurisdictions, sectors or policy communities. The information arising from tracking implementation also provides essential knowledge to design targeted support programmes for those constituencies struggling to implement the instrument. Ultimately, this should promote a wider uptake of IO normative instruments.

IOs have developed a variety of mechanisms to facilitate the implementation of international instruments. These mechanisms can be grouped into four categories (Figure 2.1): i) assistance mechanisms, to provide support to members in the implementation of international instruments; ii) compliance mechanisms, to verify the implementation of international instruments and support conformity; iii) advocacy mechanisms, to foster ownership by members and enhance visibility; and iv) monitoring mechanisms to track the use of International instruments. IOs can develop several of these complementary options to increase the uptake of their instruments.

The implementation phases in the life cycle of an international instrument can be characterised as follows (Figure 2.3):

  1. 1. Clarifying the process of implementation and allocating roles between IOs and members. The distribution of implementation competences between IOs and their members underscores the importance of co-ordinated action in this area.

  2. 2. Disseminating IOs instruments to members and end-users and advocating their use.

  3. 3. Providing support to members and end-users to encourage implementation.

  4. 4. Promoting compliance for both binding and non-binding instruments.

  5. 5. Monitoring implementation to track the use of IOs instruments.

  6. 6. Learning lessons arising from monitoring implementation to enhance the normative activities of the IO overall.

The selection of implementation mechanisms should be tailored to the nature of the instrument, the subject matter under consideration, and the collective issue it seeks to address. A comprehensive approach which draws upon a combination of mechanisms is central to advancing implementation. The lessons arising from the implementation of instruments should feed back into the rulemaking process.

The following factors are considered important to select the appropriate implementation mechanisms:

  • Level of ambition – or expected scope of change. International instruments designed to promote prosperity, social justice, people’s well-being, or protection of environment require a high level of ambition, political ownership and awareness by diverse stakeholders. In this case, the choice of the implementation mechanism will depend on the ability to involve all stakeholders up to the highest political level in order to produce “significant” and complex change of global policies. In other case, IOs instruments require “simple” technical reforms and implementation mechanisms involving stakeholders with appropriate expertise.

  • Normative strength – the level of binding and non-binding characteristics of International instruments. Legally binding instruments require the use of formal implementation mechanisms to supervise implementation and typically provide for remedies and dispute settlement procedures. Conversely, the implementation of non-legally binding instruments is generally accompanied by soft tools with positive incentives.

  • Capacity of IO Secretariat – the human resources, expertise, IT infrastructure and funding available to support implementation. For some IOs, developing implementation mechanisms may require seeking extra-budgetary funding from institutional or private donors.

Based on the processes described above, the following key principles can contribute to enhance implementation through the mechanisms identified in the typology.

IOs are usually not directly in charge of implementing the instruments that they help develop, which is left to their members. However, IOs can develop the necessary mechanisms to support implementation. Implementation is therefore a shared responsibility between IOs and members. An explicit clarification of respective roles is central to encouraging similar approaches across the membership, and can be embedded either in the instruments themselves, the IO’s founding document or an implementation action plan. To be clear and explicit on the implementation process, IOs may in particular:

  • Provide a description of the process to follow for the instrument’s implementation (acknowledging the respective roles of IOs, members and end-users).

  • Map the implementation process and the related mechanisms identified in the typology that exist in the organisation.

  • Develop a comprehensive implementation plan, which can be based on a theory of change, explaining linkages between the process of implementation of the international instrument, the mechanisms supporting implementation and the expected outputs and outcomes.

  • Provide technical means for members and any other relevant actors to report actions related to the implementation of international instruments.

Promoting and advocating for international instruments is different from developing them, but still forms an important part of a normative process. By convincing members and end-users about the value and merit of the solutions proposed by international instruments, IO secretariats can play an important role in promoting implementation - namely as follows:

  • Define a dissemination plan for international instruments: outlining how (e.g. online, printed copies) and to whom (target groups) this will take place.

  • Plan advocacy activities and carry out follow-up to measure efficiency and impact.

  • Define the relevant roles in dissemination and advocacy of IO headquarters, regional offices, national contact points and IO Partners.

  • Develop communication strategies that directly target stakeholders and the general public, and mobilise adherents to international instruments in their disseminating/ promoting, (e.g. by providing translations, promoting the instruments on IO websites, etc.).

IO secretariats play an important role in supporting their constituencies in the implementation of international instruments through various assistance mechanisms. This can take different forms, and involve supplying technical or financial assistance. To provide valuable support to their members, IO secretariats can:

  • Map the instruments and related assistance mechanisms available at the organisational level.

  • Identify the most appropriate assistance mechanisms to encourage the wider implementation of each category of instruments.

  • Facilitate co-ordination and information-sharing between the national bodies tasked with instrument development and implementation support in the same field.

  • Promote co-ordination and information sharing between different IOs when they operate in the same fields, produce similar instruments, and share (a part of) their membership (see Chapter 5).

Compliance with international instruments can occur in three distinct phases: first, by adopting national legal measures; second, by enforcing them; and third, by reporting on implementation measures. To promote compliance, IO Secretariats can consider various factors, in particular:

  • Compliance can be promoted and supported through the use of appropriate tools such as guidance, toolkits and checklists.

  • “Gap analysis” can help members understand how far they are away from full implementation and compliance.

  • The frequency of compliance actions and the resources employed should be proportional to the level of risk, and actions should aim at reducing the actual risks posed by non-compliance.

Monitoring implementation is a regular and ongoing process to gain information on the use of international instruments from a variety of sources and may have different objectives, namely assistance purposes, compliance assessment, advocacy or evaluation. Monitoring mechanisms depend on the availability of data and information on implementation results (for instance, on adaptation, incorporation, and changes in practice) to evaluate progress and non-compliance. This data can be gathered either directly by the IO secretariat, via regular reporting by members (i.e. information sharing between members and the IO), on the basis of adversarial procedures (i.e. one member or several members alleging non-observance of a norm by another member of the IO) or via procedures external to the IO but with information on the use of international instruments. To favour availability of data and monitor implementation effectively, IOs may in particular:

  • Encourage regular data-sharing across relevant entities within the IO and ensure that information about implementation is easy to look up.

  • As much as possible, keep track of national information sources on the use of international instruments that may complement secretariat efforts.

  • When relevant, make use of information collected by external sources (other IOs, civil society, academia), through a stakeholder engagement strategy (see chapters 4 and 5). In particular, it is very common that other IOs may retain critical information on the implementation of the instruments of another.

  • Tap into capacity building exercises to keep track of and address implementation challenges.

  • Develop a data management approach and a data strategy, including use of emerging technologies.

Analysing the data collected through monitoring mechanisms contributes to understanding how the IOs instruments are implemented, to what degree, and for what outcomes and impact. Using monitoring results can assist IOs in advancing understanding of implementation challenges, and to evaluate the relevance and efficiency of International instruments (see Chapter 3). In addition, this contributes to the development of a virtuous cycle: providing information on the use of international instruments constitutes a positive incentive to encourage use by members which have not yet implemented them.

  • Use monitoring results for tailoring assistance mechanisms to identified needs.

  • Use monitoring results for evaluation of instruments to sustain relevance of existing norms and enhance the normative activities of the IO overall (see Chapter 3).

  • Encourage frequent and effective dialogue and data sharing between different entities within the IO – those with information about implementation and those responsible for rulemaking – to ensure lessons are being drawn to improve the relevance and quality of instruments.

  • Encourage dialogue between IOs and their members on implementation results to identify structural issues in the drafting of international instruments that could be improved (see Chapter 1).

International instruments need to be transposed or used domestically to have practical effect. The ways in which this is pursued depends on the type of international instrument, the targeted users (national regulators, businesses, non-governmental organisations or IO partners) and the subject matter covered.

The process of implementation is often undertaken without any involvement of IOs. However, IOs may provide useful guidance or assistance to support their constituencies in the implementation of their instruments. From this perspective, most IOs consider implementation as a shared responsibility of the Secretariat and its members (23 IOs responding to 2018 IO Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]).

Some IOs provide guidance to describe the steps for their members to follow in implementing their instruments, thus facilitating the process for their members and ensuring a coherent approach to implementation across their constituency. This is most often embedded in the instruments themselves (22 IOs responding to 2018 IO Survey) (see Chapter 1). Some organisations also provide for implementation in their founding documents (15 IOs responding to 2018 IO Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]).

For certain organisations, particularly intergovernmental organisations, the implementation of international instruments involves adoption or modification of national legal frameworks (18 IOs responding to 2018 IO Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]). Depending on each country’s constitutional systems, this may require changing national legislation in line with the IO instrument (which is the case for legally binding instruments), or to provide changes in legislative frameworks to facilitate the implementation of international instruments (which is the case for voluntary instruments).

For other organisations, particularly international private standard-setting organisations, implementation means the uptake of international technical standards directly by end-users such as businesses.

IOs are attentive to the implementation of their normative instruments and invest in related supporting mechanisms. This is most frequently done via soft tools, including assistance mechanisms and advocacy mechanisms that provide positive incentives for implementation.

IOs are most active in providing support to their members in the implementation of international instruments, via assistance mechanisms (36 respondents to 2018 Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]). This support is a natural continuation of their rulemaking role and technical expertise. The forms of assistance are manifold and require more or less significant human and financial resources, which can range from the provision of a toolbox, a public database or capacity-building activities in the countries concerned (Box 2.2).

Well-adapted assistance mechanisms can help members assess their own capacity to target improvements (e.g. IFRC OCAC), or leverage IO tools effectively in crisis situations (e.g. IEA ERE). Some organisations have an organisation-wide overview of assistance activities by theme and country, ensuring that technical assistance is well distributed across members and the IO’s instruments (e.g. WIPO).

Most IOs have specific advocacy mechanisms to actively disseminate and communicate about their instruments, fostering implementation through raising awareness and promotional activities (27 respondents to 2018 Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]). Communication strategy is an important part of these advocacy mechanisms. Some IOs invest significant efforts into their website, newsletters and social media to increase the visibility of their instruments. Certain IOs have specific departments to support these activities (e.g. ASTM; ICN; ISO) (Box 2.3).

Annual events are also used to raise visibility about lesser-known areas to the wider public (OECD, 2019[2]). Various organisations hold specific days on their main area of work, including World Metrology Day, World Accreditation day, or World Telecommunications and Information Society Day (Box 2.3).

Because of the flexible and open nature of advocacy mechanisms, they can be organised around a thematic focus rather than the strict limits of a single organisation’s mandate. They can thus be an opportunity for several IOs to co-ordinate in their advocacy efforts and jointly promote knowledge about and use of their respective instruments (Box 2.5).

Roughly half of IOs develop compliance mechanisms to promote conformity with, and adherence to, their instruments (19 respondents to the 2018 IO Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]). Such assessments can be part of the international instrument itself (e.g. WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code) (see Chapter 1). The IO assess conformity with international instruments for different purposes: accession to the IO, multilateral recognition of conformity, and certification/accreditation procedure (Box 2.5).

More formal mechanisms such as sanctions, dispute settlement or mandatory peer reviews are less commonly used and mostly tied to legally binding instruments. These compliance mechanisms entail a more binding legal framework and likely a more developed institutional framework. In cases of non-compliance, IOs most frequently provide recommendations to the non-compliant member, and some require national action plans for ensuring implementation. Non-compliance can also be an indicator for providing assistance on implementation.

A large share of IOs also conduct monitoring of implementation (31 respondents to 2018 Survey) (Box 2.6) (OECD, 2019[2]). Thanks to the platforms IOs provide for sharing information, the direct relation with all of their members as well as the technical expertise of secretariat staff, they are well-placed to collect data, review and analyse the implementation of their instruments.

IOs collect a mix of qualitative and quantitative information on the implementation of their normative instruments, through a range of different reporting mechanisms. IO secretariats play a strong role in data collection and analysis. IOs most frequently collect qualitative information on laws and policies, as well as on relevant projects and activities. 23 respondents to the 2018 Survey of IOs also gather quantitative information, both on scientific and technical data as well as performance indicators (OECD, 2019[2]). In most cases, the information gathered is reviewed by IO secretariats. A large share of IOs also rely on external experts (20 respondents) or peer review by other members (15 respondents).

IOs generally have ambitious governance goals but moderate governance capacity, which influences their role in encouraging implementation. In particular, IGOs are charged with broad and ambitious objectives such as containing the use of violence, supporting human and animal health, facilitating free trade, advancing economic development, fighting organised crime, promoting human rights, improving labour standards, defending biodiversity and providing relief after natural disasters and armed conflicts. Yet their ability to pursue these goals is subject to restrictive treaty mandates, close member state oversight and limited financial and administrative resources. In sum, IGOs often lack the capabilities to perform the roles they have been nominally allocated (Abbott et al., 2015[28]).

The capacity of IO secretariat, in terms of human resources, expertise, IT infrastructure, and funding has an impact on the choice and the development of implementation mechanisms. For some IOs, developing implementation mechanisms may require seeking extra-budgetary funding from institutional or private donors. IOs must be inventive by pursuing effective actions which minimise risk (see Chapter 4).

IOs also face difficulties in collecting information on implementation, especially for non-binding instruments. When IOs manage to collect such information, it requires IO secretariats to invest resources in “cleaning”, standardising and gathering the information into comparable datasets.

In addition, it is not easy to use information on implementation by defining an appropriate methodology. Using this information on implementation effectively to improve the relevance of International instruments and identify areas of improvement requires a holistic vision and significant strategic planning, which in turn require human, IT and financial resources. As a result, a common disconnect remains between the information collected and the rulemaking process in itself (see Chapter 1).

The wealth of information about implementation is not systematically made publicly available, which does not give full visibility to the use made of international instruments. Half of survey respondents report making information about information available online (2018 IO Survey) (OECD, 2019[2]).

The large amounts of qualitative data that IOs collect are often under-utilised, often seen merely as individual qualitative texts and reports rather than tools to contribute to broader strategic objectives. However, these texts about implementation and other IO activities often contain a wealth of information and detail that could be made accessible with text-mining and machine-learning methods. The use of big data analytics and machine learning could therefore be further explored by IOs.

Some IOs have adopted a comprehensive approach to improve implementation. This involves outlining successive steps and constitutive elements to gather information about implementation, making this information available, analysing this information and using it to feed back into the rulemaking process (OECD, 2020[3]).

Comprehensive, virtual databases on implementation can help to make the information on implementation more effective and usable. This can support members to identify other members’ levels of implementation and to share experiences across the IO constituency, or IO secretariats to observe overall trends on implementation and draw important lessons from this for their rulemaking activities.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, a number of IOs reacted by adapting or delivering dedicated instruments to facilitate their implementation by members (OECD, 2020[29]). For instance, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) took normative action to adjust the implementation of the World Anti-Doping Code to current sanitary requirements, while the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and World Health Organization (WHO) developed specific guidance materials to support the smooth flow of priority medicines and other essential products across borders. Similarly, the International Accrediation Forum (IAF) established a COVID-19 Task Force for the development and publication of Frequently Asked Questions to help accreditation bodies continuously operate in the context of COVID-19 and avoid contradictions with relevant international instruments. The OECD has worked on highlighting the relevance of its legal instruments for the COVID-19 Response and Recovery by providing specific references on its publically-available Compendium of OECD Legal Instruments (OECD, 2020[30]), as well as developing ongoing thematic notes on policy responses for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic (OECD, 2021[31]). The Secretariat for the Economic Integration of Central America (SIECA) developed a set of Biosafety Guidelines (SIECA, 2020[32]) for the Central American Land Transport Sector. The Guidelines contain a biosafety protocol and establish co-ordinated procedures among participating countries to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and guarantee the fluidity of trade at land border posts (SIECA, 2020[32]).

Going forward, it will be key to evaluate the effectiveness of IO responses to the crisis, identify changes and innovations that may stay in place after the crisis, revise instruments as needed and draw lessons for upcoming crises. As an example, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), is already planning an “after-action-review” of the incident recording system.


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