Failure to Protect and UN Responsibility: The Need for Institutional Mechanisms to Strengthen United Nations’ Accountability in Peacekeeping Contexts

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Source : Marco Dormino / ONU

By Nayana Das,

Ever since the onset of peacekeeping operations (PKOs) under the United Nations’ umbrella, several incidents have risen. During these incidents, several humanitarian missions have failed to act in accordance with their aim. For instance, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide occurred despite the presence of an active UN peacekeeping operation. Likewise, in 1995, UNPROFOR/UNPF failed to prevent the massacre of up to 6,000 persons in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. In 2010, poor sanitation facilities at the UN’s MINUSTAH base in Meye caused the cholera epidemic1 that killed almost 8,000 people in Haiti. Moreover, as the number of PKOs has grown over the years, so have widespread accounts of inappropriate behavior and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers around the world2, notably in Haiti, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor and the DRC.

Such failures undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations as a whole. It is also a violation of the peacekeeping mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle, which provides the legal basis for peacekeeping operations. In this light, there is a need for accountability under two circumstances: (1) Failure to protect i.e. institutional accountability; and (2) Sexual exploitation and abuse i.e. criminal accountability.

In terms of institutional accountability, failure to protect is essentially a by-product of inaction, which is an outcome of the failure to prepare and the failure to react in a timely fashion. In this context, the Mothers of Srebrenica, an activist and lobbying dutch group which represented victims of the Siege of Srebrenica during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, prosecuted the State of Netherlands3 since it was a Dutch peacekeeping force which was responsible for guarding the safe haven at Srebrenica. Their claim was that of a failure of intelligence gathering on behalf of the peacekeepers. This was also linked to the failure in mission preparation. Part of the reason for the failure of the Dutch peacekeepers was that they were vastly outnumbered by the Bosnian Serb army; while 34,000 troops were initially thought to be necessary to ensure full safety, the Security Council authorised only 7,600 and eventually only 3,500 troops were deployed. This failure was also later acknowledged by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his address on the 10th Anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. He stated that “there should have been stronger military forces in place and a stronger will to use them”. Under these circumstances, institutional accountability can be attributed to the UN where the organisation has operational control.

In terms of criminal accountability, the principle concern at the moment is that of crimes of sexual exploitation and abuse conducted by peacekeepers while on mission. Prominent allegations in this context were raised in West Africa in 2001, Bosnia in 2002 and DRC in 2004. In Bosnia, as Kathryn Bolkovac’s ‘whistleblower’ account revealed4, UN peacekeepers actually helped support sexual trafficking and forced prostitution during the Bosnian war. In this context, however, accountability should hold not just for the United Nations as an institution but also the troop-contributing countries which are responsible for violations at an individual peacekeeper level.

Despite the need for both criminal and institutional accountability, unfortunately, no clear-cut mechanisms are presently in place to ensure this, especially since it is extremely difficult to clearly determine ‘effective control’ in an emergency peacekeeping context where peacekeepers act on behalf of both their governments and the United Nations. This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that peacekeepers act under diplomatic immunity and since the UN is not a party to the Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols, it is not formally bound by the jurisdictional frameworks offered by International Humanitarian Law.

Nevertheless, there is a need to enhance accountability because failures like these violate obligations owed by the United Nations to the citizens of the host state, thereby bringing its very existence into question. While the UN has made efforts in the past to address accountability, such as the approval of the latest UNGA Sixth Committee Draft Resolution on the ‘Criminal Accountability of United Nations officials and experts on nations’5 (November 2014)., further measures and steps to set up mechanisms need to be taken to end impunity and hold peacekeepers accountable for their failure to act and protect those they were sent to protect. Such measures can begin at the preventive step on behalf of the troop-contributing country, i.e. ensuring the enhancement of pre-deployment screening procedures of each member and enhancement of training to clarify codes of conduct and consequences for violations. The UN can further contribute by strengthening investigative and monitoring mechanisms at an institutional level and reforming agreements to define violations which will be prosecuted at a criminal level.




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