I thank President of Haigazian University Rev. (Reverend) Dr. Paul Haidostian for inviting me to be a Speaker at the commemoration of Founders’ Day and for bringing us all together today for an invigorating exchange of ideas and perspectives on the topic of accountability.
A discussion on the topic of accountability is very timely and critical around the world today, at a time when people’s trust in their institutions and in the multilateral system appears to be eroding. Everywhere, energy shortages are spreading, and global prices are rising rapidly because of broken supply chains. COVID will continue to press on people and their governments for some time to come. And climate change is now an imminent threat to us all, and to the ecosystems around us.
In a troubled context like this, how should we think about accountability?
When we think about “accounts” or “accounting”, we imagine primarily numbers, or taxes, or credit ratings.
But “accountability” is, in its essence, an ethical concept. Accountability and responsibility are often used interchangeably but these words have distinct meaning. Accountability is results-focused. Responsibility is task-focused. Responsibility must come before accountability. Responsibility can be shared while accountability cannot. Accountability underpins our personal and collective responsibilities – political, social, material, spiritual.
It is about making good on our promises and commitments to one another, to society and to the planet. And it is about being truthful and forthright, not blameful and evasive, when we fail to meet our commitments.
Accountability is at the heart of our personal responsibility and the common good. It is a foundation stone for peaceful coexistence and for building a durable social contract.
There are different kinds of accountability. At the personal level, we are accountable to ourselves through the ethical codes that we follow, and through our relations and actions in our homes and communities.
In the workplace, we are accountable for our performance, the decisions we make and for contributing to the work of the team. In the university, we are accountable for quality and accuracy of the knowledge that is passed on, and for protecting the free intellectual space that is needed for the enlightenment of young minds.
At the national level, accountability lies with those entrusted who are with the authority of public office, and with a fair and transparent administration of justice.
There is also what we might call “generational accountability”: Today, the older generation is correctly being held to account for not having taken sufficient care of the environment in these past decades. The next generation may well be held accountable for taking the steps needed to repair it.
Accountability is not about punishment or accusations. It is about building people’s trust in themselves and in others, and in systems of government and justice.
At the United Nations, we take accountability seriously – It is embedded in the United Nations Charter, which was drafted in the name of the peoples of all countries. We are accountable to our member states, and to all peoples, to do everything in our power to prevent conflicts, protect human rights, address humanitarian needs and support development.
We don’t always succeed in these things – when we fail, we acknowledge our responsibilities and seek to learn from the experience. And we keep trying. Accountability is at the root of international public service.
When Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was first elected in 2017, he made accountability central to all of his institutional reforms. and to the training of UN Staff.
Just last week, I led a long dialogue session with my own team on the meaning of accountability, and on its importance in the workplace.
We report every dollar that we spend to our members states. Our financial reports are available on the internet – you can google them or visit the UN website. Likewise, our performance reports to the Security Council and the General Assembly – outlining our success and failures – are publicly available.
We do this because we are the UN – we must be clear about the international standards of governance that we set, and the global example we give. We must practice what we preach. These are, after all, taxpayers’ resources.
We are all aware of the problems of accountability in Lebanon. This is what triggered the uprisings of 2019. And the Beirut port explosions have propelled the question of accountability to the top of the national debate, as the country faces a multitude of crises and uncertainty.
With the formation of a new government in September and its reform commitments to the Lebanese people and the international community, accountability becomes even more critical in paving the way for a better future. The government and parliament now have an opportunity to progress.
Democracy is essentially about accountability. This is specifically what elections are for: Giving the people a voice and a say and holding their leaders to account.
In my meetings with Lebanese government, political and civil society leaders, Ambassadors and the Security Council, I have emphasized the critical importance for next year’s elections to take place on time, and in a fair and transparent way.
Accountability also goes hand in hand with transparency and responsibility. In general, people feel more reassured when they know their country’s laws, their government’s projects and programs and what they can expect. This also makes them feel more involved.
Lebanon took an important step in 2017 by adopting the Right to Access Information Law and introducing amendments to it in 2020. What is important now is to ensure that it is applied effectively and that people can benefit from it. This is where accountability lies and where accountability mechanisms are essential.
When we talk accountability, we must speak also about the judiciary and the application of the rule of law. An effective and independent judiciary is critical for building trust, credibility, a functioning state, and political responsibility.
A swift, credible and transparent investigation that ensures full accountability for the Beirut port explosions will be a benchmark for an independent and effective judiciary in Lebanon. It is also the only way for the families of the 219 victims and all those affected by this tragedy to start to heal.
In the end, accountability is not just about political change on the surface. If we change our systems without changing our collective practices and outlook, we will only face more of the same. And we will fail to address the global and national challenges of politics, justice, economy and environment.
Accountability is a value which must flow freely between us. It is a state of mind that we must actively nurture in ourselves and in our culture.
Most importantly, it is about leaving no one behind.