BOOK REVIEW: Complicity and the Law of International Organizations

Written by Kobi Leins



Complicity and the Law of International Organizations: Responsibility for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Violations in UN Peace Operations

Magdalena Pacholska; Elgar International Law, 2019; 288 pages; AUD285 (hardcover)

ISBN: 9781 83910 135 9

We often think of, and write about, the effectiveness of international law in relation to the United Nations and affiliated international organisations, in helping to alleviate breaches of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law, and assisting to uphold human rights more generally. Less thought or written about is how international organisations participate in, and contribute to, human rights and humanitarian law violations in their own operations, and how they can be held to account where such violations occur. This book aims to fill that gap in research.

Increasingly, the seeming impunity and immunity of decision-makers – whether governments, corporate boards, university leadership, or international organisations, is being challenged. The once unquestioned diplomatic immunity veil is being lifted, if not fiercely tugged. Where do international organisations sit within this discourse? To what extent can or should international organisations be held accountable for the work that they do? What is the standard of care?

Increasingly, artificial bubbles of protection are being popped. Abuse of power is being challenged in so many areas, including in the very public Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. The use of exploitative technologies that harm and exploit with providing protection for those most vulnerable are being questioned. It is no longer adequate to turn a blind eye to the links between policy, practice and people, and this book looks at how this accountability can be extended to include international organisations.

Complicity and the Law of International Organizations: Responsibility for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Violations in UN Peace Operations by Magdalena Pacholska is the beginning of what needs to be a broader conversation about the complicity and the laws governing the behavior of international organisations themselves. In particular, it focuses on human rights and international humanitarian law violations, tracking the shift in peacekeeping operations from being ‘impartial’ to potentially being able to be held to account. How can the concepts of ‘due diligence’ and ‘effective control’ be applied to international organisations, if at all, and do we need different ways to think about the potential harm that international organisations may cause?

This book, relevant not only for academics, but also for practitioners, has already been cited in relevant UN reports (see UN Doc A/HRC/43/35 ‘Integrity of the judicial system – Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’), available here.

It is an excellent contribution to an area that requires more scrutiny and far more engagement. Who is responsible for policies, such as those that enable partnerships with private companies that might also violate the rule of law, beyond  international organisation staff? What recourse is there for those whose lives are devastated by missteps and oversights? Ultimately, the more checks and balances there are to hold international organisations to account, the more likely those organisations are to be trusted, and subsequently do their duty and succeed.

There remains much more work to be done in this area. A stark example of this for me personally was investigating options for my pension investment with the United Nations nearly a decade ago. Not one single option was available that did not involve mining, munitions production or companies that perpetuated human rights violations. These ideas of being complicit in a world of complexity are challenging, and go beyond obviously overt activity. As I worked downstairs in the hallowed halls of the Secretariat of the UN New York, attempting to uphold, strengthen and support international law, upstairs one of the largest financial funds in the world was operating without regard for the very principles that the United Nations Secretariat was tasked to support and comply with under the Charter. More questions need to be asked about not only the visible activity of international organisations, but their complicity in multiple other non-Charter supported engagements.

As this book succinctly points out, if the purposes outlined in the UN Charter are undermined or not fulfilled, obligations under international law are clear. Judicial or quasi-judicial mechanisms need to catch up with the obligations under the Charter and international law – hopefully this text will move the conversation closer to this being a reality.

Dr Kobi Leins
Kobi Leins
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Dr Kobi Leins (GAICD) is a Senior Research Fellow in Digital Ethics in the Faculty of Engineering and IT, with the Centre for AI and Digital Ethics, University of Melbourne. Leins is a Non-Resident Fellow of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research; Advisory Board Member of the Carnegie AI and Equality Initiative; and technical expert advising the International Standards Organisation on AI Standards. The focus of her research is on responsible innovation of AI and the life sciences, in association with an IEEE group of the same name that she recently co-launched.  Leins' book on ‘New War Technologies and International Law: What are the Legal Limits to Weaponising Nanomaterials?’ will be available through Cambridge University Press this year.


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