International cooperation

Share This
« Back to Glossary Index

The concept and term “international cooperation” in international relations and law is a foundational element of the United Nations, its purposes and its Charter. The first article of the United Nations Charter provides that one of the purposes of the world organization is “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”[1]

Providing further specificity, the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States promotes “the progressive development and codification of…

(d)   the duty of States to cooperate with one another in accordance with the Charter;…

(g)   the principle that States shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the Charter, so as to secure their more-effective application within the international community would promote the realization of the purposes of the United Nations;…[2]

The duty of States to cooperate with one another in accordance with the Charter means to do so:

“irrespective of the differences in their political, economic and social systems, in the various spheres of international relations, in order to maintain international peace and security and to promote international economic stability and progress, the general welfare of nations and international cooperation free from discrimination based on such differences.”

The Declaration goes on to specify that cooperation in accordance with the Charter, its purposes and principles extends to economic, social, cultural, technical and trade fields and that states should cooperate also in the field of science and technology and to promote international cultural and educational progress. It also calls for states to cooperate in promoting “economic growth throughout the world, especially that of the developing countries.” It further provides that “Every State has the duty to promote through joint and separate action universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Charter….” The Universal Declaration on Human Rights goes so far as to assert that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (Article 28).

ICCPR and ICESCR share a common article 1(2), making “international cooperation” an over-riding principle of treaty compliance. It reads:

“All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic cooperation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”

Two articles unique to ICESCR are explicit in setting forth how state parties are to apply the over-riding principle of international cooperation. Article 2 provides:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic, and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”

Article 22 addresses specific forms of international cooperation through the intermediary of the UN and its agencies:

“The Economic and Social Council may bring to the attention of other organs of the United Nations, their subsidiary organs and specialized agencies concerned with furnishing technical assistance any matters arising out of the reports referred to in this part of the present Covenant which [sic] may assist such bodies in deciding, each within its field of competence, on the advisability of international measures likely to contribute to the effective progressive implementation of the present Covenant.”

International cooperation is one of seven explicit over-riding principles arising from the first three articles of ICESCR that explain how a state party is required to perform in order to comply with the obligations corresponding to the rights guaranteed in the Covenant. (See Over-riding principles)

At the regional level, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) affirms the principle and “obligation” of international cooperation in its Article 21, which states:

3. The free disposal of wealth and natural resources shall be exercised without prejudice to the obligation of promoting international economic cooperation based on mutual respect, equitable exchange and the principles of international law.

The same article goes further in defining the means of discharging the treaty obligation of international cooperation, including through the regulation of extraterritorial actors:

4. State Parties to the present Charter shall individually and collectively exercise the right to free disposal of their wealth and natural resources with a view to strengthening African Unity and solidarity.

5. State Parties to the present Charter shall undertake to eliminate all forms of foreign exploitation, particularly that practised by international monopolies, so as to enable their peoples to fully benefit from the advantages derived from their national resources (emphasis added).

While the international cooperation principle bears direct consequence on the extraterritorial conduct of states under treaty, it also relates to domestic conduct not only in regulating the cross-border activities of persons and entities that it hosts, but also in the conduct of foreign agents within the state’s territorial jurisdiction. International cooperation as an over-riding principle of state obligation grounds the legal argument to hold multilateral organizations accountable and liable for their conduct through the human rights treaty-bound states parties that comprise the governing bodies of those organizations.


[1]   Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945, Article 1: Purposes and Principles of the United Nations, para. 3.

[2]   Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” GA 2625, 24 October 1970, at:

http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/348/90/IMG/NR034890.pdf?OpenElement.