Research Report

The Rule of Law: Retreat from Accountability

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This is Security Council Report’s fifth research report on the rule of law. In it, we continue to explore the Security Council’s work in upholding individual criminal accountability as an aspect of its rule of law agenda in the context of its primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. Through an examination of four situations the Council deals with regularly—Myanmar, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen—the research report takes stock of and assesses the Council’s current attitude and actions in respect of accountability.

The report shows that in some of the most devastating conflicts of recent times, Council members have–apart from general rhetoric–often ignored issues of accountability.

The primacy of various national and regional interests evident in our four case studies correlates with Council members’ inconsistent upholding of accountability when political alliances are at stake. It may also be part of a wider trend in the Council of reduced commitment towards ending impunity.

In previous years, Council members have at times demonstrated their ability to rise above their disagreements in order to adopt practical measures to advance accountability. The Council currently appears at its most divided since the end of the Cold War, however, and the report’s case studies demonstrate that suspected perpetrators of grave crimes can now expect minimal Council consequences for their actions because of the particular interests of one or more of the Council’s permanent members.

In these four cases, the Council has as yet been unable either to bring justice to victims or seriously affect the course of the conflict. While other international actors have at times demonstrated a more assertive and proactive response, only the Council has the ability to create binding obligations on the states concerned and the wider UN membership to cooperate with international criminal mechanisms, and alone has the power to enforce its decisions. Moreover, collective security measures and enforcement action authorised by the Council have a more solid legal basis and enjoy more legitimacy in the eyes of the wider membership than such actions carried out unilaterally.

In the past, while the Council was also inconsistent with respect to accountability, it could be innovative and assertive – for example, by establishing the ad hoc criminal tribunals. Taking decisive approaches towards current conflicts on its agenda, where relevant, would enhance its legitimacy as well as its effectiveness in maintaining international peace and security.