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Fostering Human Rights Accountability: An Ombudsperson for the United Nations?

By Hoffmann, Florian; Megret, Frederic | Global Governance, January-March 2005 | Go to article overview

Fostering Human Rights Accountability: An Ombudsperson for the United Nations?


Hoffmann, Florian, Megret, Frederic, Global Governance


In recent years, the UN has assumed a widening scope of responsibilities and has gradually been transformed from an intergovernmental organization to a global governance mechanism with an ever greater direct impact on individuals. This entails that the UN is also, in principle, capable of violating human rights and occasionally does so in different operational contexts. While this has raised demands for greater UN accountability, Hoffmann and Megret argue that the existing institutional mechanisms do not allow the UN to respond to these adequately. They then explore the contribution that a UN-wide ombudsperson could make to the objective of fostering UN accountability. Ombudspersons have become recognized almost universally as an indispensable good governance mechanism, and the creation of ombudsperson institutions in peacekeeping contexts, which may theoretically scrutinize the UN's own actions, shows that the time may be ripe for a more ambitious proposal. They conclude by outlining a few concrete suggestions as to how a UN-wide ombudsperson could work and how such an institution could be created. KEYWORDS: ombudsperson, accountability, UN, human rights, peacekeeping.

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The UN is involved in more activities than it ever has been. By and large, it is probably fair to say that its engagement has helped to improve many often intractable situations around the world. However, the UN has certainly not been immune to failures. Of course, some of these are bound to arise when it comes to an organization that is, after all, expected to deal with a wide range of the world's problems.

Yet there is an increasing number of such failures that cannot easily be blamed on the imperfect structure of international society and that would seem to exceed the limits of the UN's political and operational fallibility, properly understood. These are failures that are directly attributable to an incapacity on the part of the UN to live up to its own standards, particularly those standards that have been at the heart of its activities, namely human rights.

This occasional incapacity is in itself potentially very damaging to the UN's credibility. But it has only been made worse by the UN's failure to respond adequately to the question of accountability. In this article, we propose to examine the contribution that the creation of a UN systemwide ombudsperson could make to improving the UN's human rights accountability record.

The Accountability Problematique

Before we address some of the specific institutional forms that accountability might take, it is important to understand that accountability is essentially a demand, made by civil society in general, for the UN to be more responsive to complaints about the consequences of its actions. This demand covers a wide range of alleged UN shortcomings.

At one end are some of the UN's "structural failings." Srebrenica and Rwanda, in particular, stand out as striking cases where the UN's lack of political will and its operational meekness led to catastrophic consequences for entire populations. In situations where the UN had effectively undertaken to protect civilians, its incapacity to back promises by force led to what are arguably some of the worst stains on the organization's record.

However, the UN's accountability problems are not confined to the structural level. On a much smaller scale, the UN has not escaped criticism for some of the more significant negative side effects of its activities. Peace operations, because of their breadth and because they involve the use of force, were an early case in point. Already during the UN operation in the Republic of Congo (1960-1964), for example, concerns were raised about the possibility that troops operating under UN command had violated international humanitarian law. (1) Even in the context of lower-key peacekeeping missions, and aside from routine problems concerning compensation for use or destruction of property or accusations of drug trafficking and black marketeering, (2) UN Blue Helmets have not escaped accusations of occasional grave wrongdoing.

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