37 NYU Journal of International Law and Politics (2005)

The Operation of UNHCR’s Accountability Mechanisms

Mark Pallis

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Across the world, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is running refugee camps and carrying out refugee status determination. These actions have a direct impact on the lives of refugees. While this impact has helped millions, it is not always positive, and refugees’ human rights have been violated by the UNHCR’s actions. In well-developed national legal systems, institutions and principles of domestic administrative law enable refugees to hold the state to account for violations the state commits, at least to some extent. The same is not true for the UNHCR as a global administrative body. In considering how to fill the glaring gap between domestic and international standards of accountability, it is necessary to consider principles of global administrative law.

This paper analyzes the accountability mechanisms that currently operate within the UNHCR. It argues that these mechanisms do not render the UNHCR accountable to refugees, and that this situation should be rectified. It considers from a normative perspective the legal and political standards that should apply when the UNHCR is held to account. Using the criteria of access, outcomes, and ability to promote compliance with relevant standards as benchmarks, the paper critiques the accountability mechanisms currently employed by the UNHCR. It argues that these mechanisms are primarily top-down tools which owe accountability to those who have delegated power and that these mechanisms offer only minimal opportunities for refugee participation. The paper then discusses the political factors that have led to this situation, and concludes by making proposals for action.