Increasing Accountability in Peacekeeping Operations: Challenges and Opportunities

Ellinore Ahlgren, University of Cambridge, UK

Ellinore is a recent graduate from the University of Cambridge, where she studied Politics and International Relations. She has a keen interest in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Ellinore is currently volunteering with the Cambridge Development Initiative in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and has begun work for Education First this fall.


During the past 25 years, peacekeeping operations have become increasingly common and extensive in their scope. This development has been accompanied by demands for increased accountability in peacekeeping operations. This paper aims to explore to what extent increased accountability can be achieved in the peacekeeping context, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. The article looks at how to improve local accountability in peacekeeping operations by discussing four key areas of concern: the operations detachment from local communities, the regionalization of peacekeeping operations, the current approach to establishing peacekeeping mandates and the culture of impunity for peacekeepers accused of sexual violence. Accountability in peacekeeping operations should be a priority, and there are a number of opportunities for decision-makers to address this issue. Incremental steps to improve accountability include creating performance indicators for operations, establishing contact points with local communities, developing collaborative peacekeeping mandates by involving local actors in their creation, and enforcing justice for the misconduct of individual peacekeepers.


Newly appointed Secretary-General António Guterres inherited a United Nations (UN) that currently deploys more than 100,000 peacekeepers in 16 peacekeeping operations around the world. Peacekeeping operations are made up of military, police and civilian personnel, working to provide support in the areas of security, politics and early peacebuilding (United Nations, 2017). Despite the rapid expansion in both the number of operations and the scope of them since the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping operations have a varying track record that has been subjected to increased scrutiny and critique in later years. A key challenge for the new Secretary-General has been to improve accountability for failed operations and the individual misconduct of peacekeepers; currently, there is a lack of effective accountability mechanisms at all levels.

This essay will explore what accountability means in the peacekeeping context, and discuss ways it could be increased. The essay begins by problematizing the concept of accountability in peacekeeping operations and thereafter discusses their detachment from local realities. Subsequently, the idea of strengthening regional arrangements to improve accountability will be evaluated. The possibility of turning peacekeeping mandates upside down will be considered and the final section will discuss the persistent culture of impunity in peacekeeping operations. The aim is to argue that in peacekeeping operations, outside actors should take measures to improve local accountability through a process of more inclusive and collaborative mandates, creating community relations offices, establishing performance standards and holding individual peacekeepers responsible for misconduct.

Qualifying accountability in the peacekeeping context

‘Accountability means answerability; it implies a duty to explain one’s conduct and be open to criticism by another’ (Heywood 2015, p.2). In other words, accountability means being obliged to answer to someone. In addition to answerability, accountability relates to the relationship between someone exercising power, and those affected by that power. Whalan (2016, p. 2) argues that ‘accountability processes are ways of both checking power and arguing about how it should be exercised’. In the peacekeeping context, this means the power relationship between the actors in charge of decision-making, the peacekeeping personnel executing the operation, and the local actors affected by the peacekeeping operation. Accountability in peacekeeping operations can be divided into two terms: international accountability and local accountability. Whalan (2016, p. 3) uses these terms to describe the direction of accountability, where international accountability is flowing upward, referring to mechanisms within UN organs and member states to hold those executing peacekeeping operations accountable, and local accountability which refers to downward accountability, or the mechanisms available to the host society to hold those involved in peacekeeping operations to account. This essay will focus primarily on local accountability, as it is crucial to ensure the effectiveness of operations.

Operations detached from local realities

Local accountability is fundamental to the success of peacekeeping operations, as it provides legitimacy to peacekeeping forces and can thereby ensure the efficiency of missions. When peacekeeping personnel are perceived by the host society as illegitimate outside interveners, local actors can resist and hinder the effectiveness of the operation. For instance, in 2010, the government of Chad requested the withdrawal of the UN mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT). In 2015, Sudan’s government refused to issue visas for French, British and American UN ambassadors, in addition to denying peacekeepers of the UN and African Union joint mission to Darfur (UNAMID) entry to a village where mass rape was thought to have occurred (Day, 2017). This resistance demonstrates that host governments sometimes have an antagonistic stance towards outside interveners, which highlights the importance of local cooperation. Instead, if local actors have mechanisms to hold peacekeeping operations accountable, they can rely on these mechanisms to voice their discontent rather than resort to obstructive measures.

A key aspect of accountability in the peacekeeping context concerns mechanisms to account for failed operations. In order to create both international and local accountability mechanisms for failed operations, there needs to be a set of standards for success in peacekeeping operations. Scholars of peace studies have suggested a myriad of approaches to measuring success; Durch emphasises the need to tackle the underlying causes of conflict, while Rater suggests that the long- and short-term impact on the target country should be in focus (Bellamy and Williams 2005, p.176). Rather than accepting any of these approaches, Bellamy and Williams highlight three crucial aspects for measuring success in peacekeeping operations: the operation’s perceived legitimacy, its success in achieving its mandate, and its impact on peace and security in the region (2005, p.171). This is a practical way of measuring success in peacekeeping operations compared to Durch’s or Ratner’s approach, since the focus on legitimacy, effectiveness and impact are concrete ways of relating an operation’s success back to the concept of accountability. Establishing performance indicators for peacekeeping operations would be the first step towards ensuring accountability, as it would allow for operational definitions of success and failure.

Another dimension of accountability relates to who the outside actors are, and who should hold them responsible. Varied actors, including the UN, regional organisations, and coalitions of the willing or individual states, conduct peacekeeping operations. I argue that the UN has a key responsibility to hold this diverse group of actors accountable, given its dominant role as peacekeeping actor, and as a conveyor of legitimacy for other actors. This includes the operations that are not conducted with UNSC involvement or approval, because even when non-UN actors lack formal support from the UN, research has shown that they still try to act in accordance with UN purposes and principles to achieve legitimacy (Bellamy and Williams 2005). Therefore, the key focus will be for the UN to increase its own accountability, and that of other actors involved in peacekeeping operations.

Peacekeeping operations need to ensure accountability for local actors on the ground; the current nature of peacekeeping operations makes it impossible to provide local accountability. Pouligny shows that in most operations, there are very limited opportunities for contact between peacekeepers and the local population. Often the local population has little, if any, direct communication with the peace operations. ‘There is a lack of testimony about entire zones where inhabitants have said they ‘have never seen’ peacekeepers or indeed think they have left the country well before the actual date of withdrawal’ (2006, p. 30). Moreover, opportunities for contact do not necessarily mean opportunities for communication; culture and language barriers may prevent effective communication. Most often, the operation’s budget is not sufficient to meet the need for interpreters (Pouligny 2006, p.32). In addition, peace operations tend to be based in cities and capitals, which creates discord with the rural population. Even within cities, peacekeepers tend to focus on military and political elites in the metropolitan areas, and rarely venture out into the residential suburbs (Pouligny 2006, p.33). Considering these conditions, it is not strange that some societies reject peacekeepers or see them as outsiders. As long as peacekeeping operations remain distant and detached from the social, political, economic and cultural realities of local peoples, it will be hard to achieve accountability from a bottom-up perspective.

The detachment of peacekeeping operations from local realities remains one of the biggest challenges to achieving accountability in peacekeeping operations. While the 2015 United Nations High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report cites further engagement with the people on the ground as a goal, which

‘demands that United Nations personnel in the field engage with and relate to the people and communities they are asked to support. The legacy of the “white-SUV culture” must give way to a more human face that prioritizes closer interaction with local people to better understand their concerns, needs and aspirations’, 

this remains an abstract goal without concrete measures for application. Establishing links with local councils or other structures of governance outside the country’s capital would improve local participation in peacekeeping operations. Yet while increased participation in decision-making by affected parties can help create a sense of local ownership in peacekeeping operations, it does not necessarily lead to increased accountability for local actors. A suggestion by Whalan (2016, p.2) is to create a local ombudsperson or a community relations office. This would establish a mechanism that would allow local actors to hold both individual peacekeepers and peacekeeping operations accountable to a set of standards regarding their legitimacy, efficiency and impact. However, local participation in setting the standards is crucial, as an ombudsperson could otherwise exclude local actors if these indicators were to be developed without their input.

The “regionalization debate” and accountability

Another suggestion to increase accountability could be to strengthen regional arrangements and let regional actors be the primary players in peacekeeping operations. HIPPO includes directives to strengthen regional ties in peacekeeping operations, which could enable accountability. Indeed, if the primary actors of peacekeeping operations were regional forces, they are more likely to 1) have a stake in the conflict and therefore possess an understanding of the local context, 2) avoid charges of neocolonialism, and 3) the governments of the countries in the region could be held accountable by their people. While a move towards regionalization of peacekeeping operations has many strong points, it is necessary to consider the weaker aspects as well. One potential downside would be that the peacekeeping actors might have too high stakes in the conflict, and therefore hold vested interests. Bellamy and Williams raise another consideration in their exploration of “the regionalization debate”: since 1990, a number of peace operations in Africa and elsewhere have been conducted by non-UN actors, including regional organisations like Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern African Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU), but also individual states such as the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone, France in Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire (2005, p.157). Much of the literature discusses this phenomenon of non-UN peace operations in terms of “regionalization” and is focusing on how to best develop the relationship between the UN and regional arrangements. Bellamy and Williams reject the term “regionalization” for two reasons: the actors that conduct these operations are not only regional organisations or arrangements; individual states intervene, as do coalitions of the willing from different areas, and secondly, regional arrangements have engaged in areas far outside their own regions, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan or the European Union (EU) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2005, p.160-161). Proliferation of actors in peacekeeping operations may be a more apt term to describe this phenomenon.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former UN head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, further warned that regionalization creates an “only in my backyard” -approach which is problematic for regions that lack the resources to conduct effective peace operations (Bellamy and Williams 2005, p.160). It is worth questioning whether the quality of peacekeeping should be subordinated to the amount of resources a conflict-torn state’s neighbors have the capacity to spare. Increased regionalization could have serious implications for poor regions that lack the resources to provide effective peacekeeping. In addition to the implications that the region’s resources have for the quality of peacekeeping, the region’s system of rule may severely impact opportunities for accountability; if a democratic state conducts a peacekeeping operations that fails, there may be a high political cost for leaders domestically, which provides a certain amount of accountability. In an autocratic state, mechanisms for holding political leaders accountable may be significantly impaired. While the increased regionalization or proliferation of actors in peacekeeping operations has some advantages, it could prove detrimental in the long term.

Turning mandates upside down: the compact approach

Another suggestion to increase local accountability would be to turn peacekeeping operation mandates upside down. In a thought provoking think piece, Day (2017) suggests that one way peacekeeping operations could address the issue of consent from host-governments would be to change the process of mandate creation. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issues new mandates for peacekeeping operations, with recommendations from the UN Secretary-General. The host government and other regional players may be consulted to determine the scope of the mandate, but not the terms of it: ‘This means the mission’s mandate is often viewed by host governments in particular as an imposition—a Western process cooked up in New York without key national or regional buy-in’ (Day 2017). Day suggests that in order to address the issue of consent, the substantive mandate should instead be developed in a process involving the UN Secretariat, the host government and other relevant stakeholders, limiting the Security Council to create a preliminary mandate determining the broad objectives and to approve the mandate as negotiated by the Secretariat and parties involved. The mandate would from the outset be a collaborative, horizontal creation rather than a vertical order from the Council.

Day calls this reconstruction of the creation of mandates the “compact approach”, which fits particularly well with the HIPPO directives, which Day suggests have yet to be implemented:

‘…there has been much talk of the HIPPO, but little has changed in the way the UN plans and manages peacekeeping operations. In fact, in 2016 the UN struggled more than ever before to demonstrate its ability to deliver in complex circumstances’ (Day 2017). 

The compact approach aligns particularly well with HIPPO, as the approach 1) allows for the “primacy of politics” directive emphasised in the report; mandates are supposed to be a political agreement with joint expectations of the goal of the operation, 2) tailors the mandate to the conflict, avoiding a more formulaic and universalist approach, as favored in HIPPO, 3) could be one way of achieving HIPPO’s call for increased inclusion of local and regional actors. The UN could request that important local actors and civil society sign the agreement of the mandate and finally, 4) makes the process more collaborative, mitigating charges of neocolonialism often directed at the UN and Western powers intervening in conflict situations. The compact approach offers a solution to the accountability problem threatening peacekeeping operations while mitigating other criticisms simultaneously.

A big question mark that arises in response to the compact approach is whether the UNSC would be willing to relinquish authority on peacekeeping mandates. Day (2017) argues that in practice, the UNSC has little control already. However, this does not necessarily indicate that the most powerful organ of the UN would willingly relinquish formal authority over peacekeeping operations to the Secretariat and host governments, considering that operations have been growing in both number and in scope since the 1990s. Given that the body has resisted calls for structural reform since its outset in 1945, it seems rather unlikely that the Permanent Five (P5) would respond to this call for accountability by surrendering authority of one of its key mechanisms.

Increasing accountability in a culture of impunity

The final reflection of this essay regards the culture of impunity in relation to peacekeepers accused of sexual violence, harassment and child abuse. In 2016, allegations surfaced that peacekeepers in the Central African Republic had committed crimes of sexual violence and child abuse on a wide scale (Asumadu and Kinouani, 2016). This is far from a new feature of peacekeeping operations; during the UN mission in Cambodia during 1991-1992, the number of sex workers is estimated to have risen from 6000 to 20,000 due to the high demand from peacekeepers; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003, peacekeepers were said to have traded food for sexual favors (Asumadu and Kinouani, 2016). Despite these longstanding allegations against peacekeepers, dating back to the early 1990s at least, no effective mechanism exists to deal with these allegations and hold perpetrators accountable. The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) conducted an internal investigation regarding allegations of sexual violence and harassment in the Central African Republic, resulting in a report that identified 41 peacekeepers as potential perpetrators of sexual violence and child abuse, which OIOS shared with the peacekeepers’ national governments (UN News Centre, 2016). While the UN condemned the behavior of the peacekeepers and encouraged the governments of the accused perpetrators to take judicial action against them, no guarantee exists that they will be held accountable. The UN Spokesperson Office issued a statement saying that the responsibility now lies with the governments of the accused (UN News Centre, 2016). Despite oft-repeated promises of “zero-tolerance policies” for peacekeepers that engage in sexual exploitation and child abuse, prosecution is the exception rather than the rule (Asumadu and Kinouani, 2016). Here, the UN needs to devote greater resources and use its leverage to get states to commit to holding perpetrators responsible, thereby establishing greater international accountability over peacekeeping operations. Addressing the culture of impunity that surrounds peacekeeping operations would be a first step towards dealing with the problem of accountability on a micro-level, which in turn could feed into macro-level reform to hold operations responsible for poor performance in peacekeeping activities.


Outside actors can increase their accountability, and should devote time and resources to do so since the accountability problem can lead to local resistance that threatens the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations. The primary burden lies with the UN as the dominant actor and legitimizer of peacekeeping operations. A first step towards accountability would be to establish performance standards to systematically evaluate the operation’s legitimacy, effectiveness and impact. Establishing contacts with local structures to increase participation, as well as an ombudsperson or a community relations office, would be another way to increase accountability. While the strengthening of regional ties could help the issue of accountability, the proliferation of non-UN actors may have problematic consequences in the long term. Turning mandates upside down is another interesting idea that would increase accountability by making the process of mandate creation more collaborative and inclusive, and by giving the host government a greater responsibility in the operation. However, a lack of political will among the P5 may become a serious obstacle to this vision. Finally, holding individual peacekeepers responsible for misconduct is a key concern; the UN needs to demand that countries providing peacekeepers hold them responsible for abuse and exploitation, rejecting the existing culture of impunity. One of the major challenges to ensuring accountability on the ground is the elite-centered nature of peacekeeping operations and the lack of effective interaction with local populations. As long as operations remain detached from local realities, accountability at the grassroots level remains an illusion.


Asumadu, S. and Kinouani, G. 2016. The UN must smash the culture of impunity that let’s peacekeepers get away with child abuse. The Telegraph. (Online). 20 April. Available from: (Accessed: 7 May 2017).

Bellamy, A and Williams, P. 2005. Who’s Keeping the Peace? Regionalization and Contemporary Peace Operations. International Security, Vol. 29, No. 4.

Day, A. 2017. To Build Consent in Peace Operations, Turn Mandates Upside Down. United Nations University, Centre for Policy Research. (Online). 17 January. Available from: (Accessed: 7 May 2017).

Heywood, A. 2015. Key Concepts in Politics and International Relations. 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pouligny, B. 2006. Peace Operations Seen from Below: UN Missions and Local People. London: Hurst.

UN News Centre. 2016. Central African Republic: UN completes investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers. (Online). 5 December. Available from: (Accessed: 7 May 2017).

United Nations. 2015. Report of the Independent Panel on Peace Operations. (Online). Available from: (Accessed: 7 May 2017).

United Nations. 2017. Peacekeeping Operations. (Online). Available from:  (Accessed: 7 May  2017).

Whalan, J. 2016. Strengthening the local accountability of UN Peacekeeping. In Jeremy Farrall and Hilary Charlesworth (Ed.), Strengthening the Rule of Law through the UN Security Council (pp. 135-149). Abingdon, Oxon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

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