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UNaccountable: a reply to Rosa Freedman

Hovell, Devika (2018) UNaccountable: a reply to Rosa Freedman. European Journal of International Law, 29 (3). pp. 987-997. ISSN 0938-5428

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Identification Number: 10.1093/ejil/chy051


Sexual abuse is a very human stain that has marked many organizations that define themselves through virtue, including the church, schools, scouting organizations and other humanitarian organizations. The exposure of sexual abuse by United Nations (UN) peacekeepers reveals behaviour that is undoubtedly unconscionable, but surely not inconceivable. While the UN was constructed from plans to deliver peace, security, development and human rights, the organization was inescapably hewn from the crooked timber of humanity. The UN is ultimately a creature of the world upon which it seeks to act. The reality of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers has been destructive of the organization’s legitimacy, yet so is any fantasy about the imagined purity of the organization and its personnel. Scholarly attention to the development of an accountability framework for UN peacekeeping is critical so as to avoid not only overly romantic, but also overly cynical, readings of the nature of the organization. Rosa Freedman’s article calls for a ‘new approach to accountability’ in response to sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. Her focus is on accountability as a process rather than a value. Freedman highlights the importance of a victim-centred approach, arguing for the need to place relevant aspects of criminal justice, truth and reconciliation mechanisms, human rights law and political processes at the heart of accountability responses. In this short article, my focus will be on the currency, rather than the metal, of the accountability coin, giving regard to the value or values we expect accountability to serve in this setting rather than to its processes. It is hoped that this will provide an interesting foundation to support, but also to critique, elements of Freedman’s discussion. History tells that the humanitarian nature of an institution or authority is no antidote to misdeed. Certainly for the countries in which the highest number of UN sexual abuse allegations has been recorded (Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan), the history of humanitarianism is also a history of paternalism. Both ‘isms’ involve ‘the act of interfering in the lives of others, often without their permission, on the grounds that such interventions are for their own good’.1 In order to avoid one sliding into the other, humanitarians must navigate a delicate balance between care and control. Michael Barnett has tracked the history of humanitarianism, drawing chilling comparisons between the ‘civilizing mission’ of empire and liberal humanitarianism.2 Of course, there is also a key normative distinction between these projects. To effectively distinguish itself from imperial governance, humanitarian governance must stake its legitimacy on purpose: to act for the benefit of the ruled rather than of the rulers. The legitimacy of humanitarian governance is dependent on the idea that humanitarian agencies act not out of self-interest but, rather, as a public trustee and for the benefit of the ruled. At the heart of the relationship, therefore, is trust. In the literature responding to the problem of sexual violence by UN peacekeepers, scholars have focused on ‘shame’, ‘danger’ and even ‘hope’.3 My argument is that ‘trust’, at least from an institutional perspective, is the key institutional value that is betrayed by reported (and unreported) cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and is the value that accountability processes must seek to restore. Of course, the concept of trust is context specific and can have interpersonal, financial and political manifestations and implications.4 It also has legal relevance. I argue that trust is foundational to our understanding of the legal authority exercised by UN peacekeepers. In legal terms, we can classify the relationship between UN peacekeepers and the foreign populations over which they exercise authority in the nature of a fiduciary relationship. Because the fiduciary relationship is legal in nature, it generates legal duties, including the duty upon the UN to account to those over whom it exercises control.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2018 The Author
Divisions: Law
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Date Deposited: 20 Nov 2018 14:42
Last Modified: 01 Sep 2021 23:09

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