Accountability and Global Governance: The Case of Iraq

By Gordon, Joy | Ethics & International Affairs, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Accountability and Global Governance: The Case of Iraq


Gordon, Joy, Ethics & International Affairs


In this essay, I explore issues concerning accountability and global governance by looking at the case of Iraq. The case of Iraq is worth considering with respect to accountability in global governance in part because the economic sanctions against it were the first comprehensive measure imposed in the name of global governance--and they have also been the most devastating to a civilian population. This case presents in the starkest possible form the question of what should be done when an institution such as the UN Security Council, which is explicitly charged with responding to breaches of peace and security, becomes part of a system--the sanctions regime--that causes more damage to the innocent than do most wars. Likewise, it raises the question of what accountability there can be for unilateral actions by individual nations, such as an invasion and occupation, which are then legitimized by institutions of global governance.

I am interested in the humanitarian damage done by economic means partly because of its ethical implications. It is this type of harm that most directly affects the innocent, and from which the political and military elite are most insulated. I am interested in it as well because it often seems amorphous and invisible. Terrible poverty often seems attributable to no one in particular; it rather appears to be a matter of random misfortune, however extreme it may be.

I look at three cases as a way of exploring issues of accountability in the context of global governance and post-conflict scenarios: the Security Council policies regarding the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq; the operation of the Oil-for-Food program; and the U.S.-led occupation authority and its handling of Iraqi funds. The latter two have been the subject of considerable scandal, while the first one ought to be the subject of greater scandal than it has been. In part, the lack of accountability in these cases stems from criminal acts or failures to meet legal responsibilities. I would suggest, however, that there are abuses of power and forms of corruption that are in fact legitimated within established legal structures. In the case of the sanctions regime and the Oil-for-Food program, abuse occurred despite elaborate measures to prevent it. In the case of the U.S.-led occupation, abuse followed elaborate efforts to eliminate oversight mechanisms. The three situations also raise issues of accountability in very different contexts, ranging from simply stealing money, to defining the concept of "dual use" or determining the outcome of the tension between humanitarian principles and security concerns in a way that caused grave harm. I will not explore the question of "lessons learned" about the need for accountability from the experience of these three cases. The reason is that, in all three cases, it was eminently clear from the inception whose interests were served by accountability, and whose were impeded. The abuses that occurred were never due to a lack of understanding about what might bring greater integrity to the various processes involved. Rather, what they illustrate is how well the lessons of accountability and integrity were already understood, as evidenced by the determined and methodical attempts to evade and compromise these structures.

The notion of accountability is related to the concept of responsibility but is not identical to it. (1) The notion of accountability assumes that an actor is responsible for bringing about certain conditions, or for accomplishing certain things--and is then accountable through some structure of oversight that is in place to ensure that those responsibilities are carried out. In other words, accountability entails a responsibility to "answer" for what one has done. (2) Accountability requires transparency, since the actor's decisions and performance are subject to scrutiny. A structure of accountability provides credibility--it gives others confidence that the actor's responsibilities will be met. …

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