UNHCR as a Subsidiary Organ of the UN: Plurality, Complexity and Accountability

UNHCR as a Subsidiary Organ of the UN: Plurality, Complexity and Accountability



The global space is a place where decision-making and regulation involve diverse actors who act outside of State control yet who affect the rights and obligations of individuals and groups. Its innate plurality speaks against the temptation to understand accountability as a predetermined concept. Instead, it is argued that accountability within the global context should be reconceptualised through the relationships of global decision-making bodies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a subsidiary organ of the UN. If an enquiry into what UNHCR is accountable for is undertaken through an examination of its relationship with the UN according to a type of accountability, rather than as a measurable outcome of externally imposed, uniform “accountability standards”, divergent and potentially conflicting accountability obligations will be revealed. As discussed in this paper, when the relationship between UNHCR and the UN is considered through legalaccountability, it becomes evident that the position of UNHCR as a subsidiary organ allows the UN to retain a degree of control and supervision over UNHCR that corresponds with its functional autonomy, and that the terms of UNHCR’s Statue determines the scope of that control and supervision. When considered through organisational accountability, however, complex considerations involving hierarchy, “unspoken authority”, political influence and horizontal accountability become evident.

An understanding of the layered nature of the relationships of UNHCR creates a clearer perception of the body’s accountability, and the relationship between the UN and UNHCR, which is also represented by a conceptual model, provides insight into the limits of what UNHCR can and cannot achieve as part of its mandate, and in its wider role as a humanitarian agency. It is only when the nature of a global decision-making body’s accountability relationships are understood that the expectations, or accountability obligations, that flow from them will emerge. To identify what a global decision-making body is accountable for before identifying its relationships may create expectations of accountability that do not relate to the body’s operations or relationships, and will produce skewed results of its accountability performance, potentially impeding the development of effective and relevant accountability mechanisms.

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Niamh Kinchin is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.