Prioritizing UN Peacekeeper Accountability

A peacekeeper surveys thousands of South Sudanese displaced by deadly clashes in Juba, September 2016. (UN Photo/Isaac Billy)

Improving the accountability of United Nations peacekeepers will be a key challenge for new Secretary-General António Guterres. The UN currently deploys more than 100,000 peacekeepers from 123 different countries to 16 peace operations around the world. These missions play a vital role in the UN’s responsibility toward international peace and security. Yet, poor performance and blatant misconduct by some peacekeepers in the field, paired with insufficient organizational accountability measures, risks undermining the effectiveness and credibility of the organization and the peacekeeping endeavor.

Outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prioritized bolstering UN accountability policies that address peacekeeper misconduct, especially those concerning sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). Guterres has committed to continuing this important work; however, confirming that “protectors” do not become “predators” is a low bar indeed. A more ambitious task is ensuring that peacekeepers are acting constructively to implement the tasks for which they were deployed in the first place. This involves holding poor performers accountable and here UN policies remain much less developed.

At the start of a new year and of new leadership, it is worth considering the opportunities for improving performance accountability. Three points in particular stand out: the importance of establishing performance standards; the controversial but vital role of “naming” as a part of transparency; and, recognition of the fundamental dilemmas faced, with poor leverage, and of the need to cultivate partnerships. In all three, Ban’s efforts to address peacekeeper misconduct provide instructive starting points, but the following points also highlight the crucial distinctions that make improving performance accountability especially thorny.

Establishing Performance Standards Is Vital

First, the new secretary-general needs to continue the work of identifying and clarifying operational standards, metrics, and indicators for peacekeeping tasks in the field. Secretary-general reports to the UN Security Council now routinely include benchmarks of mission progress, but the level of aggregation, abstraction and imprecision has led to repeat calls for progress in “effects-based and performance-focused standards” and “measurable, indicator-driven reporting.”

Concerning misconduct accountability, the UN has a clearly specified and oft-repeated policy of “zero tolerance” of SEA by its personnel. Achieving similar precision in setting baseline performance standards, however, is difficult. First and foremost, what constitutes peacekeeping success remains a matter of significant debate. Absent agreement on what peacekeepers can do to support peace in complex contexts, it is hard to build consensus around what precisely peacekeepers should do. This ambiguity heightens the likelihood of diverging opinions on appropriate performance metrics and opens the door for politically charged disagreements.

To say that the task is difficult, however, does not absolve the Secretariat of responsibility. Encouragingly, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Department of Field Support (DFS) quietly introduced a “repository” of 52 detailed indicators for assessing the success of protection of civilians (POC) mandates in early 2016. The indicators focus on measuring outcomes; for example, one proposed metric is a decrease in the number of recorded casualties among civilians disaggregated by region, perpetrator, and victim demographics.

The path ahead is threefold. First, the Secretariat needs to expand the indicators so that they address all mandated peacekeeping tasks, including ceasefire monitoring, disarmament, election support, and many more. Second, the metrics should be deepened. Outcome measures must be complemented by similarly precise data on peacekeeper output, such as the number patrols taken or capacity-building training conducted. Both data points are necessary to begin to assess and resolve the causal ambiguity surrounding peacekeeper impact. Finally, the organization needs to clarify and streamline who has access to collected performance data. A strong case can be made for expanding the number of those privy to this information.

“Naming” Is Central to Effective Transparency

In his final year as Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon introduced a number of important measures for improving transparency on peacekeeper misconduct. His final annual report on SEA named, for the first time, the nationalities of the peacekeeping troops facing SEA allegations. The nationalities are now publicly available on the DFS website, as is the status of investigations and court proceedings in offending peacekeeper’s country of origin. This transparency facilitates the work of an active advocacy group committed to holding not only the Secretariat but also member states accountable.

Similar openness is rare in cases of poor peacekeeper performance, even in relatively clear-cut instances of mandate failure. The organization’s response to the February 2016 attack on the UN base and protection of civilians site in South Sudan—which led to the deaths of at least 30 internally displaced persons and the destruction of a third of the camp—is illustrative. Early accounts of the attack found much to fault in the peacekeepers’ response, including reporting that one unit abandoned the base perimeter and another became “impossible to reach” throughout the episode.

DPKO launched a board of inquiry to investigate the events, but only publicly released a one-paged summary of its findings, consistently refused to name the under-performing units, and remained vague on the subsequent plans to send home poor performers. Impressive reporting by one advocacy group found that, months after the inquiry concluded, only one commander had been quietly repatriated. Promised plans to hold full contingents appear to have been “overtaken by geopolitical concerns” and by obstruction “coming from New York.”

Absent greater transparency, the effort to identify and hold accountable poor performers is made significantly more difficult for advocacy groups. This is to the detriment not only of an informed international conversation, but also to the secretary-general himself, who often finds himself between a rock and a hard place on performance accountability, in need of allies.

Inescapable Dilemmas, Limited Leverage, and the Need for Partners

Another episode from South Sudan highlights the secretary-general’s frequent and unenviable position of facing inescapable dilemmas, limited leverage, and a need for partners. In July 2016, violence broke out in the capital city of Juba, resulting in the death of over 300 civilians and displacement of 42,000. UN peacekeepers again performed their protection mandate poorly, providing “inconsistent” defense of the thousands of civilians sheltered on their base and “almost nonexistent” protection to those beyond its gates. UN headquarters, however, subsequently took a significantly different approach to assessing responsibility and demonstrating accountability.

In November, the Secretariat released a lengthy summary of the appointed independent review, including within it the nationalities of poor performing contingents. “Alarmed by the serious shortcomings identified,” Ban Ki-moon asked for the immediate resignation of the mission’s Force Commander, Lieutenant General Ondieki of Kenya.

These measures were heralded by many, but certainly not all. The Kenyan government was furious and declared its intention to immediately pull its 1,000 troops from the mission and to cancel its plans to contribute soldiers to the Regional Protection Force. Within a week, the first batch of 100 Kenyan soldiers was withdrawn.

Kenya’s retaliation highlights an inescapable dilemma for the secretary-general: Accountability requires independence, but the Secretariat is fundamentally in a position of dependence. The UN depends upon voluntary troop contributions from member states to task its missions, and is thus sensitive to offending major troop contributing countries. Compounding this, perpetual troop shortages limit the organization’s options for being selective in force generation a priori and can undermine the credibility of threats to later hold poor performers accountable.

While similar tensions are at play in cases of peacekeeper misconduct, over 1,000 peacekeepers have been repatriated for SEA, including the symbolic dismissal of the special representative to the Central African Republic. A late victory for Ban was the passage of Security Council Resolution 2272, which endorsed (and thus begins to institutionalize) the secretary-general’s power to repatriate whole contingents where there is credible evidence of patterns of misconduct. Even so, many still caution against overusing such drastic measures, acknowledging that “countries aren’t exactly queuing to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions.”

In the case of South Sudan, recent reports warn that the country “stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic war” and even a “Rwanda-like” descent into violence, and call for the immediate deployment of peacekeeping reinforcements. Impending atrocities paint the secretary-general’s position—weighing a principled stand against dire short-term realities—in a stark light.

In the near-term, the secretary-general has an unlikely ally in the regional body, as the Inter-governmental Authority on Development continues to urge the Kenyan government to reverse its decision. Member states who have signed on to the Kigali Principles—committing to the protection of civilians—seem another natural partner and should be encouraged to condemn, as a norm, any such member state retaliation. Finally, in the more distant future, ongoing member state initiatives to broaden the available pool of peacekeepers will hopefully help buttress the secretary-general’s ability to credibly threaten repatriation and resist reactive coercion.


The new secretary-general has the opportunity not only to continue Ban Ki-moon’s work to address blatant peacekeeper misconduct, but also to expand accountability measures to include assessing peacekeeper performance. The task ahead will not be easy. It requires, first, the hard work of establishing clear performance standards and, second, a commitment to transparency in subsequent monitoring and reporting. Both are required to facilitate—last but certainly not least—the constructive engagement of a wide variety of potential accountability partners, including journalists, advocacy groups, sympathetic member states, and invested regional bodies. On January 1, Guterres assumed “the most impossible job on this earth,” but in improving performance accountability, he cannot and need not work alone.

Laura Bosco is a PhD Candidate in the School of International Service at American University. @ljbosco