International Coffee Organization: Regulating The Black Gold (PART – I)

by Shreya Kaul


Coffee is probably one of those beverages which is consumed by almost all age groups across the world, and resultantly, it’s also one of the most traded commodities. Consequentially, an international nodal body is imperative for the even functioning of the coffee markets and economy; it’s at this juncture that the International Coffee Organization (ICO) appears relevant. This article commences with an introductory segment which consequentially leads to the nature identification of the ICO. This is shortly followed by understanding the multiple International Coffee Agreements and their functional, structural and legal implications on the ICO. The article eventually culminates into a critical appraisal of the ICO, based upon the quantitative and qualitative evaluation by the author. The scope of this article would remain unfulfilled if practicable recommendations aren’t provided by the author, and the same have been provided towards the end of the article before finally concluding it with the anticipation that the ICO will brave the testing times of the pandemic and eventually regulate the coffee markets, like it did in its heyday in 1963.


166,346 thousand 60 kilogram bags– this statistic represents the global coffee consumption in 2020/2021. The world coffee market can indisputably be referred to as the “black gold market” which continues to evolve every day. However, an international regulation of a perishable commodity such as coffee would be tedious in the absence of an international, nodal body, which can ensure welfare of all the stakeholders in the global coffee market. The determination of global coffee prices isn’t merely an economic chore, but also a politically driven one, which may occasionally turn discriminatory. Therefore, to achieve a functional balance in the global coffee souk, the ICO attained relevance in 1963, when the first International Coffee Agreement, 1962 (ICA) was provisionally entered into for stabilizing global coffee prices.


International Organizations (IOs) have majorly been conceived to be a clustered concept, rather than an open concept since no exacting factor ‘makes’ an IO. However, certain recurrent characteristics have been commonly utilized to determine the internationality of an organization; and their analysis by the author would aid in identifying the nature of ICO. At the outset, even though ICO is touted to be an inter-governmental organization, in the author’s opinion, it assumes majority of the characteristics of an IO. The usage of the term “organization” for representing an inter-governmental institution was first done in the peace treaties post World War I, where merely being “intergovernmental” was indicative of being an IO. The unmistakably popular Vienna Convention clearly mentions that it treats an IO akin to an intergovernmental organization.[1] The ICO duly fulfills the criteria of inter-governmentality with the presence of its 6 importing and 43 exporting members States/Governments. The origin and the autonomy[2] of the present day ICO, where decision-making is actualized via voting by each Member country, requiring distributed majority across Members, can be traced back to the ICA, 1963 treaty.ICO seeks to embolden and regulate global coffee markets for all stakeholders’ welfare, thereby ensuring global public interest in a specific domain which a state can’t accomplish singlehandedly.[3] Possessing an international legal personality has recently emerged as a contemporary, yet a narrower definer of an IO; this personality is evident through the constitutive document of ICO i.e. the ICA, 1963 which was acknowledged by all Members and till date ICO continues to gain authority and a distinct legal personality through the renewed ICAs, the latest one being ICA, 2007. Finally, the requirement of a permanent secretariat is fulfilled by ICO, wherein the International Coffee Council (ICC) (ICO’s highest authoritative body) is headed by a permanent secretariat. Having briefly understood the inter-governmental nature of ICO, while also possessing majority of concrete characteristics of an IO, it’s now befitting to delve into the ICAs which determine the ICO’s structural functioning.


The legal roots of ICO trace back to ICA, 1963, which was effectuated for fixing the disequilibrium of coffee’s market demand and supply which was leading to globally depressed coffee prices. ICA, 1963 didn’t develop in vacuum but was rather entered into to annihilate the prior occurred negotiations and multiple short-term coffee agreements. Manifold such Coffee Agreements were continually adopted by ICO for determining its structure and functioning. The ICAs were enforced in 1962, 1968, 1976, 1983, 1994, 2001 and finally in 2007 consisting of several extensions and channelized goals.  Over time, all the ICAs have been adhered to, to fulfill ICO’s indispensable functions namely, stabilizing global pricing of coffee through imposing price quotas, establishing negotiating groups and forums, coordinating national coffee production policies alongside mandating the producing of a Certificate of Origin by the Exporting Members (for quality assurance purposes), conducting a multitude of conferences and research studies for analyzing and disseminating coffee market related information through ICO’s coffee magazine COFFEELINE, and for exploring untouched markets through collaboration with private bodies. More recently, the aspirations of ICAs have shifted to improving coffee’s quality by maintenance of a sustainable global coffee chain, while ensuring adherence to food safety procedures and collaborating with other IOs for aiming to become a transparent body which globally regulates fair coffee production and consumption. The author advocates that the several ICAs merely don’t depict the lawful aspect of ICO but they ensure the fulfillment of ICO’s functional obligations as provided therein. The ICAs are also assistive in delineating the structure, roles and responsibilities of each member in the hierarchy of ICO’s administration. The eminent representatives of ICO’s organogram are the ICC, the World Coffee Conferences, the Executive Director, and the Secretariat among numerous other essential Committees and Forums. All these aspects of ICO brew in symbiosis for providing a near perfect blend of an organization, which prides itself in promoting sustainable coffee production and consumption.

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Image Credits: iPleaders Blog


Shreya Kaul is currently a fourth year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune.


[1] Article 2(1)(i) VCLT IO 1986 (not in force).

[2] K. Schmalenbach, International Organizations or Institutions: General Aspects,, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Oxford University Press (2014); J. Klabbers, An Introduction to International Organizations Law,, Cambridge University Press (2015); H.G. Schermers and N. Blokker, International Institutional Law, 41 Leiden: MartinusNijhoff (2018).

[3]M. Virally, Definition and Classification: A Legal Approach,39 INTN’L Social SCS. J. 58-72 (1977); G. Burdeau, Les organisationsinternationales: Entre gestionpublique et gestionprivée, Essays in Honour of Krzysztof Skubiszewski (The Hague), Kluwer (1996).

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