Structural Challenges Confronted by UN Accountability Mandates: Perspectives from Current and Former Staff (Part I)

Structural Challenges Confronted by UN Accountability Mandates: Perspectives from Current and Former Staff (Part I)

[Sareta Ashraph is a Visiting Fellow of Practice with the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security, Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict (ELAC), Oxford Blavatnik School of Government; she is a barrister with Garden Court Chambers; and the Co-Vice Chair of the IBA War Crimes Committee; Federica D’Alessandra is the Executive Director, Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security, Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict (ELAC), Oxford Blavatnik School of Government; immediate past Co-Chair & Advisory Board, IBA War Crimes Committee; Council, IBA Section on Public and Professional Interest & Human Rights Institute.]

[This blog post addresses new research being carried out at the University of Oxford around the question of whether some form of permanent support – or even a permanent investigative mechanism – should be created to fulfil international investigative mandates. This post, which is the fourth in a series of ten, presents the analytical findings of an anonymised survey of 103 former and current staff of UN mandate holders with a focus on accountability.]

In September, we introduced the research we are conducting at the University of Oxford, in partnership with the International Bar Association and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Simon Skjodt Center for Genocide Prevention, that seeks to understand how UN mandate holders with a focus on accountability can be better supported. These include Fact-Finding Missions (FFMs), Commissions of Inquiry (CoIs), and the generation of UN accountability mechanisms – the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM), the International Independent Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), and the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) – referred to in our research as ‘new investigative mechanisms’ (NIMs).

It is widely recognised that the three NIMs share an unambiguous mandate to collect, collate and analyse evidence of international crimes (committed in Syria, Myanmar, and Iraq by Daesh/ISIL respectively) according to criminal justice standards, and make this evidence available for domestic or international prosecutions. While FFMs and CoIs are often thought of being established to monitor and report on serious human rights violations, since at least 2011, FFMs and CoIs are now often not only tasked with human rights investigations and reporting but also with ‘identifying those responsible’ and laying the foundation for future criminal accountability, a development that we have referred to as an ‘accountability turn’. In our work, we have sought to understand the shared challenges among these mandates, and ask what type of support they would need to receive to overcome them.

In designing our research methodology, we sought to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society groups documenting international crimes, and domestic and international prosecutorial and judicial authorities interfacing with these mandates to understand the ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ challenges they face. A key question we faced was how would we be able to hear from those working within these mandates, whose voices are least heard, and how would we access them. In this post, we discuss the preliminary analytical findings of an anonymised online survey of 103 former and current staff of UN mandates, intended to capture their perspectives. The survey, which was conducted between August and mid-October 2020 by our programme’s Visiting Fellow of Practice Sareta Ashraph, was distributed through two channels: a list of former and current staff that was built specifically for this research project, and through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right’s (OHCHR) list of former and current staff. As was indicated to those accessing the survey, OHCHR did not have access to the resulting data, which was anonymised at the point of collection. The distribution channels targeted staff holding specific positions within the FFMs, CoIs, and NIMs, including investigators, analysts, legal advisers and coordinators (the respondents).

The survey asked respondents to indicate the strength of their agreement or disagreement with 43 statements built around five core topics: (i) recruitment; (ii) investigations; (iii) legal analysis and case identification; (iv) analysis, preservation and storage of electronic and physical information and evidence collected; (v) commonly used policies procedures and forms. Finally, they were also asked their views on the efficacy/desirability of the permanent investigative support unit, a recommendation our project’s Advisory Group of Practitioners already made in 2017 to the previous High Commissioner (see here, recommendation 1). Respondents also could avail themselves of free text boxes if they wanted to explain their responses or their perspectives in greater detail. This post discusses results of our survey concerning staff recruitment and training. A second post discusses results of our survey on all other issues. (Click here for a larger view of these survey results).


When it came to the recruitment of staff, the majority of respondents somewhat disagreed (40.43%) or strongly disagreed (28.72%) that the recruitment process for staff of UN mandates was efficient. Over 77% of respondents disagreed with the statement that all core staff, notably in the investigative and analytical teams, were recruited within two months of the entity being established (with 53.76% strong disagreeing). Respondents’ comments indicated that this was due largely to structural issues including the fact that the budget often takes longer to be approved, with the consequence that there are delays in the dispersal of funds that would allow for recruitment of staff. In the case of one CoI or FFM, a respondent noted that as recruitment was only initiated once the budget was approved, “some team members joined the team six to seven months within the mandate, leaving at best 2 months for the effective work.” Respondents also pointed to late recruitment caused by delays in the release of staff from their previous employment; administrative delays with regard to secondments; visa delays; and the unavailability of selected staff who found another post due to the length of time that the recruitment process took. Several noted sharply, that FFMs and CoIs in particular, that as staff contracts were tied to each mandate period, the challenges of recruitment were sometimes visited at the start of each mandate period, in circumstances where a new budget needed to be approved, resulting in a gap in funding.

Despite indications of a longer-than-desired recruitment process, only 11.70% of respondents agreed that the recruitment yielded staff with the requisite expertise and skills, with more detailed comments indicating this more positive attitude among those working for the NIMs. 48.94% of respondents disagreed that recruitment yielded staff with the requisite expertise and skills. Respondents who’d worked/ are working in CoIs and FFMs, in particular, indicated there were significant differences in expertise, knowledge and skills across investigators who were supposed to carry out the same work. Multiple respondents decried nepotism within the recruitment process, particularly as regards Geneva-based mandates, which resulted in staff with unsuitable experience and expertise being recruited.

While respondents indicated these differences could perhaps have been addressed through training, 60.87% disagreed that any such training had been provided by the mandate that they were working for, with one stating that learning new skills occurred at the initiative of the individual, outside of working hours. Others who indicated that some training was provided, stated that the training was too generic to be useful: as there had been no assessment of skill and knowledge gaps present on the team, the training had not been designed to address them. One person indicated that the induction training they received was good but delayed recruitment meant staff were still arriving months into the mandate, many staff did not receive that training. 65.96% somewhat or strongly disagreed that the mandate they worked for provided mentoring to support transfer and development of skills or knowledge gaps in team members.

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