Since August 2016, the United Nations has launched three special investigations into allegations of underperformance or egregious failure to protect civilians through UN peacekeeping missions. There have been marked differences in how the UN Secretariat has handled these investigations. A look at these differences and recent legislative, policy, and political action by member states and the Secretariat sheds light on how to enhance transparency and accountability following special investigations. Maintaining momentum on this issue will be crucial in the context of current peacekeeping reform efforts, as there is no greater risk to the credibility and legitimacy of the UN and its peacekeeping operations than failing to protect civilians.
It is well known that UN peacekeeping operations are deployed in extremely dangerous environments where civilians are targeted and where UN personnel and premises are attacked. Concrete examples and emerging academic studies demonstrate that UN peacekeeping operations do protect civilians. However, in some cases, UN peacekeeping operations don’t have the capacity or will to protect civilians, and may sometimes fail to act as they should, with devastating consequences for civilians.
It is in some of these cases where special investigations into performance failures have been initiated. These investigations—often referred to by the name of the individual that led the investigation team—include:
- The independent special investigation into the violence in Juba, South Sudan, in July 2016 and UN Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) response (the Cammaert investigation);
- The independent special investigation into incidents of violence against civilians in the southeast of the Central African Republic (CAR) that occurred between May and August 2017, and the UN Stabilization Mission in CAR’s (MINUSCA) response (the Amoussou investigation); and
- The special investigation following the September 15, 2017 incident in Kamanyola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following the killing of 38 Burundian refugees in proximity to UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) peacekeepers (the Obiakor investigation).
The UN Secretariat and peacekeeping operations have a number of mechanisms to address performance issues in protecting civilians that may not merit a special investigation which include, but are not limited to, joint investigation teams, boards of inquiry, and after-action reviews. However, special investigations can be an important tool for the UN to use in cases of particularly serious incidents. When a special investigation is launched, it can mobilize political attention and action by the Secretariat, peacekeeping missions, and member states to improve performance and ensure accountability for failures to protect.
Diverging Practice on Special Investigations
There are three primary differences in the way the UN Secretariat has handled these special investigations, all of which could affect an investigation’s effectiveness and impact: the rank of the UN official announcing the investigation; the handling of public information; and the scale and scope of the incidents that led to the investigations.
First, the level of authority of the UN official launching the special investigations has differed. Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Cammaert investigation, whereas the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations announced both the Amoussou and Obiakor investigations. While any special investigation launched by the under-secretary-general or other UN official is done under the authority of the secretary-general, there are compelling arguments why the secretary-general should be the primary UN official to announce these measures. The direct line of authority that exists between the heads of UN peacekeeping operations and the secretary-general sets a clear line of accountability between headquarters and the field in cases of underperformance or failure. Further, the secretary-general’s involvement can catalyze urgent action to implement recommendations of an investigation, including on politically sensitive issues like accountability for senior UN personnel, or for prominent troop- and police-contributing countries.
Second, the handling of public information of special investigations has differed. Following the Cammaert investigation, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly released the ten-page executive summary and made an official statement on the findings. There is compelling evidence to suggest that the transparent release of the executive summary created space and momentum for reform at the mission-level and at UN headquarters. Diverging from this practice, the UN transmitted far less information on the other special investigations. The findings and recommendations of the Amoussou investigation, for example, included only six brief bullet points transmitted in a public Note to Correspondents. Further, there has been no public information released to date on the Obiakor investigation.
If the information contained within special investigations is not shared transparently with stakeholders, the political will to remedy the causes and address the consequences will be diluted. Without transparency, it is more difficult for member states to grasp and hold themselves accountable for their shared responsibility to make peacekeeping more effective, as well as to hold the Secretariat responsible for the factors under their authority and control.
Third, there does not appear to be defined criteria to determine when a special investigation should be launched. The incidents that have prompted investigations have differed in their impact, specifically in terms of the number of civilian fatalities, casualties, and/or displacement caused, as well as in the geographic and temporal scope of the incidents in question.
The lack of clarity on this issue is illustrated by an incident that took place in Alindao, CAR, in November 2018, during which UN peacekeepers did not respond to an attack that caused the deaths of approximately 100 people and the displacement of over 20,000 people. While the casualties in Alindao exceeded other incidents that prompted the launch of special investigations, the incident did not prompt the UN to act as it had in response to other incidents. Instead the UN relied on internal investigations by MINUSCA and the Department of Peace Operations.
Defining criteria that trigger special investigations could contribute to bringing more predictability and credibility to the use of these tools in the future, and could also serve as a bulwark against political pressures that may seek to prevent investigations from being launched into particularly grievous incidents. Consideration could be given to, for example, whether an incident that exceeds a defined number of civilians killed, injured, and/or displaced takes place within a defined distance from the presence of a UN peacekeeping operation, or where there has been a series of incidents that equal or exceed the above-mentioned threshold, potentially implicating a mission or a particular uniformed contingent in a pattern of underperformance.
Member State Reform Efforts
In response to the ad hoc nature of the special investigations since 2016, member states amplified calls for enhanced transparency and accountability from the Secretariat. Most recently, in September 2018, the Security Council adopted resolution 2436, a landmark resolution on performance and accountability in UN peacekeeping operations. The resolution notably calls for, “improving the methodology of the investigations and transparency of the findings of such investigations,” as well as for the secretary-general to, “provide detailed reporting on the findings and implementation plans of Special Investigations to the Security Council and relevant Member States, as appropriate.”
The legislative provisions of resolution 2436 were preceded by progressively more significant language on special investigations through Security Council products and the UN General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. This committee, known as the C34, was established in 1965 with a mandate “to conduct a comprehensive review of all issues relating to peacekeeping,” and has recently welcomed investigations initiated by the secretary-general and called for improved transparency and information-sharing by the Secretariat.
Member state interest on this issue has also been channeled into recent peacekeeping reform efforts, notably Secretary-General António Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative. The Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations has been endorsed by 152 member states and 4 supporting organizations and includes a commitment by Secretary-General Guterres to, “enhance measures to share the findings of Secretary-General commissioned reviews and special investigations, as appropriate.”
Delivering on Shared Commitments
Following legislative action by member states in 2018, the UN Secretariat conducted a review of the investigations launched since 2016. This process resulted in the creation of draft guidelines for special investigations, which are currently under review at UN headquarters. Going forward, member states should continue to press for the effective, accountable, and transparent implementation of recommendations of future special investigations. This will need to be done in lock-step with delivering on A4P commitments to match peacekeeping mandates with resources, provide political support to peacekeeping missions, and enhance training and capacity-building, among others. All of these efforts are necessary to ensure peacekeeping operations can effectively protect civilians, and circumvent the need for special investigations into underperformance or failures.
Evan Cinq-Mars is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).
This article is part of a series on protection of civilians (POC) being published on the Global Observatory to mark the twentieth anniversary of the first thematic Security Council resolution on POC.
 The manner in which the investigations were announced also differed. The Cammaert investigation was announced via an official statement, the Amoussou investigation in a Note to Correspondents, and the Obiakar investigation also via a Note to Correspondents.