International Organizations Accountability Symposium: Reputation and Accountability

International Organizations Accountability Symposium: Reputation and Accountability

[Kristina Daugirdas is a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.]

Absent a contractual relationship, individuals who have been harmed by the acts of international organizations rarely have access to institutions to hear their claims. National courts are often unavailable on account of organizations’ immunities. Some organizations have established alternative mechanisms to resolve such claims. The World Bank Inspection Panel is one example; the Ombudsperson for the ISIL and Al-Qaida UN Security Council Sanctions regime is another. Such accountability mechanisms must be deliberately designed, adopted, and implemented.

By contrast, no deliberate effort is required to have a reputation. Like individuals, organizations have reputations whether they want them or not. A good reputation can confer significant advantages, while a bad reputation can impose significant costs. For this reason, reputation can be a powerful motivator and disciplinarian. Given the dearth of legal mechanisms for holding international organization accountable, understanding when and how reputation serves as an effective disciplinarian of international organizations—and when and why it does not—is especially important. Ian Johnstone has observed that, if reputation can function as an accountability mechanism, it may take some of the sting out of demands for legal responsibility.” The converse is also true: to the extent that reputation fails to function as an effective disciplinarian, the need for formal institutions becomes more urgent.

Along some important dimensions, the cholera outbreak in Haiti is a best-case scenario for reputation as a disciplinarian. For starters, reputation can work only if people are paying attention. Because of the work of journalists, NGOs, epidemiologists, UN special rapporteurs, and scholars, the tragedy in Haiti has garnered significant and sustained attention since the first cholera case in Haiti was confirmed in 2010. This attention has been overwhelmingly negative: there is no doubt that the United Nations’ handling of the cholera outbreak has seriously damaged the organization’s reputation.

Indeed, UN officials and member states alike have insisted that they want to repair that damage. Introducing a New Approach to cholera in December 2016, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced invoked the United Nations’ reputation three times in his written report and twice in his remarks before the General Assembly. The General Assembly’s resolutions endorsing that approach (here and here) have cited the “impact of the cholera epidemic on the reputation of the United Nations in Haiti and globally. Individual government representatives have likewise invoked the organization’s reputation on numerous occasions.

If measured by how long it took the Secretary-General to apologize (six years since the start of the outbreak), and by how little funding states have provided for the New Approach (about $10 million out of the $400 million envisioned by Ban), even in this best-case scenario, reputation isn’t working very well. In my symposium contribution, which draws on my other work on reputation as a disciplinarian of international organizations, I seek to explain why. In this post, I focus on two key elements.

First, reputation will function as a less effective disciplinarian when the facts are murky. This feature of reputation creates a troubling incentive: organizations may be tempted to preserve good reputations by preventing the release of damaging information. The more control that organizations have over the release of damaging information, the greater their capacity to protect their reputations in this manner. In the case of the United Nations, this capacity is quite significant. Like other international organizations, the United Nations enjoys privileges and immunities that allow it to limit access to its documents, its premises, and its personnel.

As explained in more detail in my contribution, the United Nations sometimes gave in to this temptation. From the first suggestion that UN peacekeepers might be responsible for the cholera outbreak, the United Nations exhibited an uneven commitment to ascertaining and publicly acknowledging what happened. Ultimately, the United Nations proved that it could slow down—but could not prevent—the emergence of a robust account pinpointing Nepalese peacekeepers as the source of the outbreak.

Second, the United Nations’ reputation in the eyes of the general public is not the only reputation that matters to the organization. At bottom, a reputation is made up of a set of judgments that observers make about on organization (or about an individual). Organizations—like individuals—have multiple audiences. Importantly, these multiple audiences are not necessary passing judgment based on the same information, or passing judgments against the same standards. One audience might cheer what another audience deplores. Under these circumstances, reputation is unlikely to serve as an effective disciplinarian.

In responding to the cholera outbreak in Haiti, the United Nations was more responsive to some audiences than others. In particular, the organization seemed especially focused on maintaining a reputation for cooperativeness with and responsiveness to those member states that supplied key resources to the organization, namely financial resources and peacekeepers. To accomplish this goal, the United Nations was willing to endure significant criticism from journalists, academics, and NGOs. Responsiveness to the Haitian government and Haitian public appeared to be a far less urgent priority.

In short, while international organizations have strong incentives to protect their reputations, reputation is not an adequate substitute for more formal accountability mechanisms.

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