Cooperative identity and cooperative law: Interview with Hagen Henrÿ

19 Nov 2021

The ICA Cooperative Research Conference and the 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law will be the precursors for debates on key themes and sub-themes of the 33rd World Cooperative Congress. We interviewed Prof Hagen Henrÿ, the Chair of the ICA's Cooperative Law Committee, to find out what to expect from these two events...

What does the cooperative identity mean to you?

Prof Hagen Henrÿ: The elements which constitute the cooperative identity are laid down in the 1995 International Cooperative Alliance Statement on the co-operative identity (ICA Statement). The wording of the ICA Statement is clear: the therein enshrined cooperative principles put the cooperative values on which cooperatives are based into practice. The ICA Statement also defines cooperatives. This identity is now universally recognised and it is – via the 2002 Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation of the International Labour Organization No.193 legally relevant. 

This identity, which must not be confused with a supposed essence of cooperatives, has evolved over a period of 180 years in a unique continuous process of practiced theory and theorised practice. It evolves at its own rhythm, but also because identity is indicative of cooperatives forming part of a wider world of socio-economic organisations that, in turn, is subject to changing circumstances and requiring that the cooperative identity be constantly rethought and rewritten if cooperatives are to remain a distinct mode of enterprising where the economic is not allowed to draft apart from the social and the cultural. 

How does cooperative identity relate to cooperative law?

Prof Hagen Henrÿ: Here we have to distinguish between various actors. As the ICA Statement forms part of the by-laws of the ICA, its content is legally binding for the members of the ICA and, indirectly, for the members of these members. In its recent Report on “Cooperatives in social development” the Secretary General of the United Nations makes explicit mention of this. For other actors the ICA Statement is relevant as its content has been integrated into the ILO R. 193 with minor changes. As more and more national and regional legislators refer to the (ICA) cooperative principles, the question whether the ILO R. 193 is legally binding as far as cooperative law is concerned may be left open. It is legally relevant in the sense that no legislator would disregard it. Several of its paragraphs and especially its Paragraph 10 require that cooperative law be based on the cooperative values and principles. Therefore, cooperative law in the substantive sense is that law which translates the cooperative principles into legal rules that enable cooperatives to contribute to the realisation of sustainable development. I add this latter element because sustainable development has been recognised by the International Court of Justice as a concept of public international law and this concept is permeating more an more all areas of law.

Along with the ICA Cooperative Research Conference, the 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law will be the precursor for debates on key-themes and sub-themes of the 33rd World Cooperative Congress. What are some of the topics that will be discussed at the Forum?

Prof Hagen Henrÿ: As its name indicates the 3rd International Forum on Cooperative Law is the third of its kind in the third of the four regions of the ICA. We thus try to gradually put emphasis on all legal traditions. Its theme is the harmonisation of cooperative laws and it is linked to the main theme of the ICA Congress which is the identity of cooperatives. The link between the cooperative identity and cooperative law was the subject of the preceding question. 

Beyond this, but within the frame of identity and harmonisation and in line with the previous Fora participants will deal with a wide range of subjects. A rather great number of participants will deal with new technologies and cooperatives/cooperative identity. This is particularly noteworthy as it indicates a will to keep the cooperative idea abreast with latest changes in this field and make it thus attractive for those who so far might have imagined cooperatives as a thing of the past.

The theme of the Law Forum is Identity of Cooperatives and the Harmonisation of Cooperatives Laws. Match or Mismatch? A good number of abstracts have been submitted; why do you think there’s a strong interest in this topic?

Prof Hagen Henrÿ: Almost 50 abstracts have been submitted. By experience, the number of participants will not differ significantly. 

Apart from a steadily increasing interest in cooperative law in politics and academia alike at all levels, the interest in this particular topic of harmonisation reflects in my view the importance of the harmonisation of cooperative laws, be it intra-nationally or regionally. Behind the term “harmonisation” a wide range of different approximations of cooperative laws may be observed. Their conditions are as numerous as their effects. This in itself calls for a greater need to involve comparative law. This need is also prompted by the fact that more and more enterprises, cooperative enterprises included, are integrating organisationally into global value chains where different enterprise types and different legal systems meet with norms set by non-state actors.

Who should attend the Law Forum?

Prof Hagen Henrÿ: Anybody interested in cooperative law and convinced of the reciprocal relationship between identity and law.

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