On the importance of oversight and accountability.

Oliver Balaam
5 min readJun 25, 2016


Inspired by Tony Benn, Oliver Balaam searches for systems of accountability atop the world’s biggest democratic organisations, and comes away largely empty handed.

When Tony Benn passed away last month, bipartisan condolences, tributes and hagiography flooded the media, along with a depressing number of easy to knock out listicles. Debates surrounding the deservedness and historical veracity of this praise could (and I’m sure soon will) fill a book, but I hope most can agree that if not always the most practical of politicians, Benn’s idealism and unshakeable commitment to social justice was admirable and often inspiring.

One of many famous quotes, and by far the most circulated on the day of his death, concerns the importance of oversight and accountability in democracy, and is worth reproducing here in full:

“If one meets a powerful person — Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler — one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

I’m reminded of this checklist every time I see unrestricted power wielded by unelected individuals, and I’m reminded shamefully often, at the moment. Globally, it seems that the balance of power and authority increasingly lies with elites, rather than with elected representatives.

Crimea, for example, reveals a territory occupied by an estimated 20,000 Russian soldiers, many of whom waltzed into the country without identification or official Russian acknowledgement. Following the invasion of Crimea, two non-Ukrainian politicians, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, tried (and failed) to find a solution beneficial to their countries.

In Syria, another warzone, a political uprising has devolved into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, not a single Syrian, Iranian or Saudi cast a ballot in favour of this war. Without outside intervention (the exporting of chemicals related to nerve gas, for example) the conflict could have been resolved long ago.

International answerability has long been an objective of the global political community, but international law consistently fails to deliver it. International law is, as Jacques Derrida puts it, “perfectible, revisable, in need of recasting, both conceptually and institutionally.” He notes than “as soon as one party does not respect it the others no longer consider it respectable and begin to betray it in their turn.”

Even if we narrow our scope to domestic issues though, it’s still difficult to detect effective systems of oversight or accountability, even the largest governmental bodies.

The United States’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates under the Department of Homeland Security, and is by far the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. After 9/11 it became politically advantageous to secure the border. Under Bush and Obama CBP has more than doubled in size, employing over 20,000 officers.

Available data paints a picture of an agency that has grown too large, too fast and at times, appears to be operating out of control. Accounts of alleged mistreatment at the hands of CBP agents, such as forced bowel movements anddetainment in “icebox” cells, are so widespread and consistent that it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a systemic problem.

AZ Central reports “on-duty Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers have killed at least 42 people, including at least 13 Americans” since 2005. It adds: “Internal discipline is a black hole. There have been no publicly disclosed repercussions”.

Furthermore, border search exceptions allow searches and seizures of possessions, including electronic devices, without reasonable cause or a warrant. It’s argued that people are sometimes confronted based on skin colour. 67% of Americans live in these constitutional exemption zones, and many are unaware their rights have been reduced.

The CBP’s controversial Use of Force Policy Handbook was first published for official use in October 2010 but its classification as law enforcement sensitivemeant that it was extremely difficult to get a hold of. After sustained pressure from civil rights activists, the handbook published in unredacted form in January 2014 by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

After the handbook’s initial publication, a government-commissioned review recommended that CBP “train agents to de-escalate these encounters by taking cover, moving out of range and/or using less lethal weapons. Agents should not place themselves in positions where they have no alternatives to using deadly force.” Michael J Fisher, chief of the US Border Patrol, rejected two of the main recommendations — deadly force against rock throwers and potential assailants in moving vehicles.

CBP still heavily redact sections of their policy when they receive freedom of information requests. In case of national security, excessive redaction is not uncommon but it allows governmental bodies to enshrine themselves while suspending the due process of others. In some cases, it does not allow opposing parties to see the legal arguments against them.

In pursuit of narrow self-interests, ill-defined “terrorist” threats, secure borders and countless other lobbied issues, we have surrendered our right to hold the powerful to account. We have lifted some of the largest governmental and corporate organisations in the world above the law, and forced the most vulnerable in society to shoulder the weight.

The truth never damages a just cause but the truth is that it’s never been more politically untenable to question power than it is today. Our representatives, stymied by redactions, legal exemptions and political stonewalling, simply can’t perform effective oversight. To hold these organisations accountable we need to slash and burn the red tape that we’ve allowed to accumulate so tenderly around them. We must learn not to grant sweeping powers in moments of panic, because the liberties lost in these moments can take a lifetime to win back.

This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine.