1. definition
  2. examples and/or illustrations
  3. other useful sources
  4. bibliography



  1. The state of being accountable, liable or answerable.

Dictionary.com. Retrieved from: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/accountability (Accessed January 4, 2013).


The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. It also includes the responsibility for money or other entrusted property.

BusinessDictionary.com. Retrieved from: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/accountability.html (Accessed January 4, 2013).

Of individuals, states and organizations:

“In the legal field, accountability has a well established but somewhat narrow definition: it is a ‘principle which requires public authorities to explain their actions and be subject to scrutiny’ (Le Sueur, A. (2008). Definition of accountability. The New Oxford Companion to Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press in Turk & Eyster, 2010: 160).

“The dependency by populations of concern on humanitarian action and international protection creates a situation of power that requires a corresponding system of checks and balances. This needs to be balanced with the obligation of organizations like UNHCR to account for the use of financial, political, and material means that have been put at their disposal by [donor] states” (Turk & Eyster, 2010: 162).

 “Accountability implies that humanitarian organizations and personnel are responsible for the impact and outcome of their activities. It means that they have a duty to make effective and efficient uses of the resources, which are placed at their disposal. And it suggests that they should conduct their business in a manner that invites and facilitates external scrutiny. In this respect, the notion of accountability is closely related to another concept that many people would now regard as a fundamental humanitarian principle: that of transparency” (Crisp, 2002: 227).

“According to the Global Accountability Project (GAP), an accountable organization is one with several attributes: first, an equitable decision-making process; second, the open and fair appointment of senior staff; third; effective stakeholder participation; fourth, an effective complaints mechanism; fifth, a policy of social responsibility; and last but by no means least, an independent evaluation process” (Crisp, 2002: 227).

“Accountability is defined by UNHCR as a commitment to deliver results for populations of concern within a framework of respect, transparency, agreed feasibility, trust, delegated authority, and available resources… While ultimately guided by a results-orientation, this system will continue to rely on mechanisms that ensure a responsible use of the financial, political, and material means provided to UNHCR as well as the authority and responsibilities invested in the organization and its individual staff members (Turk & Eyster, 2010: 162).

“Accountability is essential because it is a means of ensuring more effective protection of rights by providing individuals with the opportunity to seek redress for rights violations. Institutional subservience to human rights entrenches the view that refugees are possessed of inalienable rights. This betters their status before the law and puts all their interactions with the UNHCR on a more level playing field” (Pallis, 2005: 870).

 “The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) defines accountability as ‘the responsible use of power.’” (HAP International, 2008: 3).

Towards asylum-seekers for protection:

“The only legal accountability created by the Refugee Convention is that undertaken by signatory states, to ensure that asylum and other benefits are afforded to those who come to their borders and successfully apply. The 1951 Convention does not create any legal obligation on the part of the country of origin states, i.e. states from which asylum-seekers flee” (Storey, 2003: 427).

“Some courts have held that unless a State can itself be held accountable for inflicting serious harm then an applicant cannot be considered a refugee despite the genuine nature of the harm feared. The State is only accountable when it perpetrates, condones or tolerates serious harm; not when it merely proves unable to prevent harm caused by non-State actors. This has been described as the ‘accountability’ theory because of its emphasis upon the need for the State to be complicit in or at least indifferent to such harm occurring. This is analogous to the requirement in international law that a wrongful act be attributable to the State before State responsibility is engaged. By contrast, other jurisdictions have held that serious harm caused by non-State actors which the State is merely unable to prevent is capable of founding a claim for refugee status. This has been called the ‘internal protection’ theory given its emphasis on the practical availability of protection for the citizenry from serious harm rather than demanding that the harm be ultimately attributable to the home State. The test employed is an objective one of effective protection rather than a subjective one of accountability. (Wilsher, 2003: 70-71).


Examples and/or Illustrations

“As an outcome of a three year structural and management reform process, UNHCR’s system of accountability will now comprise two principle and complementary overarching mechanism: the Results Framework and the Global Management Accountability Framework. As explained in more detail below, results-based management provides the methodology and tools for UNHCR to enhance its responsiveness to the needs of populations of concern. The Global Management Accountability Framework (GMAF), in turn, comprehensively maps accountabilities, responsibilities, and authorities across the organization and relates them to the corresponding management policies and guidance” (Turk & Eyster, 2010: 167).

“Accountability is also important because, in its camps, the UNHCR is in almost all sense the refugees’ government, controlling all important aspects of their lives. Whether the UNHCR can be held to account for its actions will determine whether it is a responsive government, or a benevolent dictator, and will determine whether the refugees are … real people, citizens with rights and aspirations” (Pallis, 2005: 870).


Other Useful Sources

AccountAbility,  http://www.accountability.org/.

Blagescu, M., de Las Casas, L. and Lloyd, R. (2005). “Pathways to Accountability: A short guide to the GAP Framework”. London: One World Trust.

Groves, L. (March 2007). “2007 Global Analysis UNHCR Accountability Framework for Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming and Targeting Actions”. Retrieved from: http://www.hapinternational.org/pool/files/global-analysis-accy-agdm-final.pdf (Accessed November 13, 2012).

Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, http://www.hapinternational.org/.

Kagan, M. (2007). “Setting Standards of Ethics, Competence and Accountability for Legal Aid in the Context of UNHCR RSD” [Working Paper and Draft Proposal]. Pp 38.

Kagan, M. (April 14, 2006). “UN Reform for the Rest of Us: An Agenda for Grassroots Accountability”. Foreign Policy in Focus, 1-8.

Kapila, M. (2002). “Incentives for Improved Accountability”. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 21(3), 239-244.

Lester, E. (2005). “A Place at the Table: The Role of NGOs in Refugee Protection: International Advocacy and Policy-Making”. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 24(2), 125-142.

Linde, T. (2002). “Accountability and Independence in Humanitarian Action”. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 21(3), 235-238.

Thomas, V. and Beck, T. “Changing the way UNHCR does business? An evaluation of the Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming Strategy, 2004-2009”. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Policy Development and Evaluation Service, pp 149. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain?page=search&docid=4c21ac3a2&skip=0&query=accountability (Accessed on November 13, 2012).

Transparency International, The Global Coalition Against Corruption, http://www.transparency.org/. In particular, see humanitarian assistance at http://www.transparency.org/topic/detail/humanitarian_assistance.

UNHCR. (May 2007). “UNHCR Accountability Framework for Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming”. Pp 32. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/47a707950.html (Accessed on November 13, 2012).

Wigley, B. (January 2006). “The State of UNHCR’s Organizational Culture: What now?” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Policy Development and Evaluation Service, pp 38. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/43eb6a862.html (Accessed on November 13, 2012).



BusinessDictionary.com. “Accountability”. Retrieved from: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/accountability.html (Accessed January 4, 2013).

Crisp, J. (2002). “Humanitarian Values, Accountability and Evaluation”. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 21(3), 226-230.

Dictionary.com. “Accountability”. Retrieved from: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/accountability (Accessed January 4, 2013).

HAP International. (2008). “The Guide to the HAP Standard: Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management”. Oxford: Oxford GB for HAP International. Pp 239.

Pallis, M. (2005). “The Operation of UNHCR’s Accountability Mechanisms”. New York University Journal of International Law and Justice, 37, 869-918.

Storey, H. (2003). “The Advanced Refugee Law Workshop Experience: An IARLJ Perspective”. International Journal of Refugee Law, 15(3), 422-429.

Turk, V. an Eyster, E. (2010). “Strengthening Accountability in UNHCR”. International Journal of Refugee Law, 22(2), 159-172.

Wilsher, D. (2003). “Non-State Actors and the Definition of a Refugee in the United Kingdom: Protection, Accountability or Culpability?”International Journal of Refugee Law, 15(1), 68-112.