UNHCR and the complexity of accountability in the global space



Publication Details

N. H. Kinchin, 'UNHCR and the complexity of accountability in the global space' in K. Sandvik & K. Jacobsen(ed), UNCHR and the Struggle for Accountability: Technology, Law & Results-Based Management (2016) 26-45. https://www.routledge.com/UNHCR-and-the-Struggle-for-Accountability-Technology-law-and-results-based/Sandvik-Jacobsen/p/book/9781138911529


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an organisation that is distinctive, multifaceted and quite unlike any other body within or outside of the UN system. It is also one of a diverse number of actors and decision-makers that occupy the 'global space', a context central to global governance yet beset with accountability challenges. If feasible solutions to an accountability deficit in the global space are to be realised, the importance of contextually responsive accountability must be recognised. And if accountability is to be contextually responsive, the pluralism inherent in the global space must be acknowledged, 'Acknowledging pluralism' means appreciating that the unique relationships of a global actor are the basis for its accountability obligations, not preconceptions of what it - and every other global body - should be accountable for. UNHCR is a subsidiary organ of the UN, yet it retains significant functional autonomy. It has a traditional protection role, which has gradually shifted to one of increased humanitarian intervention and 'pragmatism' (Loescher 2001). Its' supervisory mandate has been compromised by State self-interest, increasingly restrictive asylum policies and States' position as voluntary contributors to UNHCR's funding. Although refugees and beneficiaries remain of crucial importance to any accountability discussion involving UNHCR, each of these characteristics impacts UNHCR's relationships in a way that produces accountability obligations that are unique to it. When accountability is perceived through the lens of pluralism, UNHCR's discrete accountability obligations can be identified, and the way those obligations intersect and potentially conflict with each other understood. Without such insight into the complexity of UNHCR, accountability solutions risk becoming aspirational tools that 'say the right thing' yet remain ineffectual because of their failure to understand and respond to their subject appropriately.

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