Challenging Some Baseline Assumptions about the Evolution of International Commissions of Inquiry

By: Michael A. Becker


PDF: Evolution of International Commissions of Inquiry


Conventional accounts of the historical development of international commissions of inquiry reflect a progress narrative consisting of three propositions: (1) that recourse to inquiry bodies has increased dramatically in the post–Cold War era, (2) that inquiry bodies have evolved from mechanisms for “pure” fact- finding into quasi-judicial bodies that engage with international law, and (3) that the function of inquiry bodies has shifted from diplomatic dispute settlement to norm enforcement and accountability.

Part I explains how this narrative simplifies and distorts the rich history of inquiry bodies in international affairs. Part II shows how the idea of a post–Cold War “turn to inquiry” downplays the extent and scope of earlier practice. Part III examines how inquiry bodies have long engaged with questions of international law, even if the form of that engagement has varied. Part IV then considers historical inquiry bodies that, like their modern-day counterparts, engaged in norm enforcement, pursued accountability, and addressed human rights violations and atrocity crimes. Ultimately, a more nuanced understanding of past practice has value for ongoing debates about the usefulness of inquiry bodies and the extent to which their contemporary role reflects a measure of progress.