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Ethics Center hosts UN panel on rule of law

Published: March 21, 2013
Section: News

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life organized a discussion last week, featuring former South African Justice Richard Goldstone, on how the U.N. implements rule of law standards.

Led by Daniel Terris, director of the Ethics Center, the panel discussion focused on the 2012 proclamation by the United Nations, which says that “the rule of law applie[s] equally to all States and international organizations, including the United Nations. All persons, institutions and entities [a]re accountable to just, fair and equitable laws, and entitled to equal protection before the law, without discrimination.”

Panelists were encouraged to consider how the U.N. has previously responded to charges of wrongdoing both internally and in conflict zones, as well as how the U.N. ought to react to future accusations in attempt to minimize scandal and preserve the legitimacy of the institution.

Specific incidences brought to attention were the Oil-for-Food Program with Iraq, reports of sexual violence and arms trafficking related to peacekeeping operations, as well as the current cholera epidemic in Haiti—supposedly brought by peacekeepers sent to the island. The panel consisted of members of the International Advisory Board of the Ethics Center, all of whom boast intimate connections to the United Nations.

Hans Corell, the former Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel of the United Nations, representing Sweden, regretted the lack of “a court that can adjudicate disputes between third parties and the U.N.”

Corell elaborated that, “If you come to a criminal act, or if you come to a case where a staff member has acted in a matter where the contract has been violated, the U.N. itself has no institution to deal with this.”

Turning to the issue of peacekeeping, Corell argued that on the “complex question of the peacekeepers … you cannot say that they are representatives of the U.N. They are part of a peacekeeping operation, but they do not represent the U.N. in a legal sense. But [the peacekeepers], by the general public, are perceived as U.N. representatives.”

The problem concerning responsibility for peacekeepers arises from the fact that “the military personnel are actually still under the jurisdiction of the sending state.” In contrast, if a civilian hasn’t behaved in a way they should, “that matter must be brought to the courts in the state that has contributed to this particular endeavor. And of course, if there is a peacekeeping operation, the courts are not very functional, so there is a dilemma there.”

Yet, “There is work being done … because the situation is not satisfactory as it is … We cannot allow that crimes committed by peacekeepers are not addressed by courts,” Corell ensured the audience.

Up next was Richard Goldstone, retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Goldstone has been an active member for investigations on the U.N., including that of the infamous Oil-for-Food Program. Goldstone described the details of the scandal, and how Kofi Annan, then Secretary General, staged an independent investigation of the affair.

By doing so, Goldstone argued, “The result was saving [Annan’s] reputation, and to a large extent the reputation of the U.N.” All but one senior official was cleared of charges and several recommendations were made to the U.N. by the investigators—although not all of them have been carried out by the institution as of yet.

The next panelist to speak was Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the President of the Center for Strategies and Security for the Sahel Sahara, representing Mauritania. Abdallah focused on accusations of sexual violence perpetrated by peacekeepers, and brought up Bosnia and the East Congo as especially relevant examples. To address this problem, Abdallah says the “U.N. has done what it can. Its commission in Geneva has appointed since 1994 a Special Rapporteur on sexual violence, because we know in conflict, sexual violence is a tool of war, a tool of domination.” This role of Special Rapporteur was renewed in 2006.

Abdallah regrets that in Africa, “the U.N. is losing ground. It is known as filthy or manipulative.” Abdallah is “very disturbed by the weakness of the U.N.,” and sees this as “also the weakness of the member states … Most power centers are losing credibility and legitimacy, and with that, even efficiency.” Abdallah stressed the necessity of innovation in re-building and strengthening the legitimacy of the institution.

The final panelist was Gillian Sorensen, the Senior Advisor for the United Nations Foundation. Sorensen attested that she has a habit of telling her audiences that “the U.N. reflects the world as it is, not always the world that we want it to be.” Sorensen believes that when there is a problem or a scandal, it is best to “deal with it up front, and soon. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t pretend you can just put it aside, but address it, and early, and with a single message.”

She admitted “it is hard [keeping up these standards] when the operations are in the most far-flung areas of the world; when there are financial issues, but the standard or the transparency and credibility has to be just as sharp for the overseas operations as for those of the headquarters’ operations.” Sorensen assured that “We do, now, have much stronger inspector generals in almost every activity of the United Nation, and [she] thinks it is a more accountable organization than it used to be,” continuing to say that “[The U.N.] does try to hit the highest mark [it] can. It does serve the national as well as the global interests. And we do hold our people accountable.”

The panelists proceeded to discuss the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and the U.N.’s decision to reject claims for the direct compensation of victims before answering questions from the audience.