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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2017

Chapter 2 - The Concept of Accountability




Power is a central notion in the concept of accountability. Yarwood has indicated that ‘while the form of accountability is context specific (both in terms of the factual and disciplinary context), the objective in seeking accountability is consistent'. Schedler finds that ‘today, it is the fashionable term accountability that expresses the continuing concern for checks and oversight, for surveillance and institutional constraints on the exercise of power'. Yarwood echoes this definition and considers that accountability is ‘a tool for regulating and responding to the abuse of power […]'.

In its study of accountability for international organizations the International Law Association has found that ‘[p]ower entails accountability, that is the duty to account for its exercise'. It finds that international law seeks to restrain and regulate States exercising power. In international legal scholarship we find a reference to ‘power breeds responsibility', that is, the acknowledgement that if a State exercise power over another actor it must be held responsible. Nollkaemper finds that the proposition that power breeds responsibility is reflected in the various dimensions of legal responsibility: jurisdiction, wrongfulness and attribution. We will come back to the connection with jurisdiction in a moment.

Keohane has also asserted that accountability is closely related to power relationships since ‘[…] accountability requires some ability of accountability holders to sanction power-wielders, a relationship of accountability can only exist if the accountability holder can exercise some degree of influence over the power-wielder'. Mulgan similarly points out that an accountability process between actors can only be considered as occurring in an authority relationship' and thus accountability entails ‘rights of authority', that is the right of accountholders to hold power-wielders accountable. The accountability holder needs to be able to request information from the power-wielder and if necessary have the opportunity to impose, or to have imposed, sanctions. Schedler also considers this in his more abstract definition of accountability: ‘A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A's (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct'. As have other scholars, Schedler thus finds that for an accountability relationship to exist there must be obligation for the power-wielder to give account; the accountability holder must be able to discuss and interrogate the power wielder and be able to sanction in the event of misconduct.