Skip to content

IGOs are typically organized by their membership and by their purpose. For example, the UN is called a global organization because all countries are allowed membership. There are currently 192 member states in the UN. Some IGOs are regional and limit their membership to states within the designated regions. Other IGOs are referred to as selective organizations because they base their membership on criteria other than geography. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, for example, bases its membership on religious affiliation. OPEC, on the other hand, is comprised only of countries that produce oil. Specialized IGOs, such as NATO, limit their activities to a particular field. General IGOs have expertise on a wide variety of topics, such as the UN.

IGOs are distinguishable from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in that NGOs are formed by two or more individuals rather than by nations. NGOs are therefore typically independent of governments, are usually non-profit organizations, and receive at least a portion of their funding from private sources. IGOs have the financial and political support of its members.

IGOs, as any organization, present a variety of legal issues. That these issues occur in the context of a foreign country or foreign laws often increases their complexity. Consequently, the range of legal work is vast. A few examples are listed below.

  • Serve as Corporate Counsel assisting in negotiating and drafting agreements with nations and other IGOs
  • Draft acts, rules and regulations for legislative bodies and serve as their policy advisors
  • Represent an IGO in disputes and other claims of a commercial or operational nature
  • Handle procedural and jurisdictional issues dealing with the right to fair and expeditious trials for international tribunals
  • Provide legal expertise to an IGO’s dispute resolution mechanism or executive body (e.g. its secretariat)
  • Prosecute persons for war crimes and other violations of international human rights
  • Serve as a Legal Officer performing legal research, providing written and oral legal advice to the principal and subsidiary organs of the IGO, and minimizing its legal liabilities

A Legal Officer in the General Legal Division of the UN Office of Legal Affairs gives a more specific example of the type of work that can be performed by attorneys. The Office works on issues in four main functional areas:

  1. day to day administration and management (e.g. personnel, regulations, policies, financial),
  2. the UN’s peacekeeping and humanitarian operations (e.g. resolving claims for death or property damage, issues regarding the status of missions),
  3. the UN’s development and technical assistance programs (e.g. contracting for services relating to such assistance), and
  4. procurement and contracting activities (e.g. resolving procurement related claims, preparing substantial contracts).

In many ways, it is similar to the work performed by in-house counsel in a large, multinational organization. However, while the legal issues may be similar, the fact that they are done in the context of public international law makes even routine matters take on unique and interesting aspects.

The United Nations

Founded in 1945, the United Nations is the single largest IGO in the world. The UN Charter, the treaty establishing the UN, lists its main purposes as maintaining international peace and security, developing relations among nations, working to solve international issues, promoting human rights, and being a central place for harmonizing the actions of nations.

For more information on the UN, see OPIA’s United Nations Jobs and Internships Guide.

Other IGOs

OPEC, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), NATOthe African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), and the Organization of American States (OAS) are among the largest non-UN IGOs. However, you should not limit yourself to only large organizations. There are many smaller organizations doing interesting and challenging international work, such as the African Development Bank (ADB) and the Asian Development Bank.

IGOs may focus on trade (e.g. European Free Trade Association), security (NATO), or international crime (Interpol). You’ll find that many UN Committees have non-UN IGO groups that offer a regional alternative to working within the UN.

Required Experience and Skills

Other IGOs have varying requirements for employment and internships. Fluency in English and at least one other language is often required. What second language may be required will depend upon the member states represented within the IGO. There may be age requirements for various programs. For example, the Junior Professional Program at the Inter- American Development Bank (IDB) requires one to be 33 years of age or younger.

Citizenship of a member state is also a factor in securing employment for internships. This factor is of more concern for work in non-UN IGOs as the composition of member states tends to be narrower than the UN System. U.S. citizenship, therefore, may be an exclusionary factor for work in some IGOs, though exceptions may occasionally be made.


There are a number of human rights and conflict resolution organs that function within multilateral IGOs. The autonomy of these types of bodies varies, even within the same multilateral organization. Therefore, those interested in internships or careers should contact them separately. One example is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which promotes and protects human rights. It is an autonomous body of the OAS, represents all of the member states of the OAS, and has its mandate in the OAS charter. The commission has about 25 attorneys working on such topics as women’s rights, children’s issues, immigration and petitions alleging rights violations.


The majority of IGOs will accept law interns, though not all have formal internship programs. Even if offered, IGO internships are usually unpaid.

Where formal internship programs exist, detailed information on eligibility and application processes is usually available on the organization’s website. Where no formal internship program exists, it is often possible to arrange an internship by making direct contact with the division for which you hope to work. This is especially true if you do not need to get paid or can come with your own funding.

Post-Graduate Employment

Many IGOs, especially larger ones, actively recruit lawyers for legal and quasi-legal positions. Most organizations post job vacancies on their websites. For most legal positions within IGOs, academic and professional experience related to the organization’s objectives is extremely important, and in many cases, organizations like to see multiple years of experience. As with many UN bodies, many non-UN IGOs may have entry-level programs for young, relatively inexperienced professionals.

Sometimes these programs specifically seek lawyers. As with the UN, a viable option for less experienced attorneys is to seek a short-term consultancy. Another entry point is through domestic civil service. Working in the U.S. Department of State or the Department of Justice (DOJ), for example, may provide the requisite experience.