Security Sector Reform: Past, Present...and Future?
This summer’s headlines have been exhaustingly tragic. From the violent blitzkrieg and beheadings carried out by the Islamic State, to the shocking recklessness of militants in Donetsk and police in Ferguson, insecurity has taken an unsettlingly high civilian toll these past months. And despite their contextual differences, each case demonstrates with equal clarity that ineffective security provision remains a critical obstacle to communities’ well-being and development.
For some analysts and policy makers, the lack of discipline, efficacy, or control among national security forces rings like a clarion call for security sector reform (SSR). However, after more than ten years of cobbling together a rather uneven record, SSR processes continue to focus on supporting state security agents who, if not blatant aggressors, have often proven dishearteningly ineffective.
The Iraqi army’s capitulation as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām advanced its offensive was not only demoralizing but also underscored an insight as relevant in Missouri as it is in Tikrit: effective security provision requires more than tactical training and heavy equipment; it demands a process of renegotiating power and building inclusive systems of governance.
Perhaps this is the common lesson to be drawn from incidents as disparate as soldiers’ mutiny in Mali, the militaristic quarantines in Monrovia, and the violent smothering of protests in Cairo. The politics of genuine security reform are never frictionless, but they are necessary. And for too long they’ve been the weak link of SSR. An important moment has arrived to take an honest look at how the concept of SSR has been shaped by its past, how it is currently applied in practice, and how it may respond to security challenges in the future.
From sanguine origins…
As elaborated further in a recent policy brief published by the Clingendael Institute’s Conflict Research Unit, the peacebuilding and statebuilding origins of SSR have embedded within the concept and practice some fundamental assumptions. In light of recent research and current headlines, the credibility of these core axioms are rapidly fading.
The peacebuilding paradigm of the early 2000s ushered forth SSR as a crucial component of post-conflict recovery. In the afterglow of a peace accord, the political terrain of a country newly ‘at peace’ was considered fertile ground for change and renewal, with extensive scope for donor intervention. Not pausing to interrogate these assumptions, SSR took up a rather technical enterprise in places like Timor-Leste and the Democratic Republic of Congo, assembling new security forces, distributing new uniforms, and printing training manuals. Meanwhile, the upper echelons of the political oversight structures were often divided among and populated by leaders of the previously warring groups. This fell short of a recipe for success, to say the least.
The subsequent rise of the statebuilding agenda continued the trend of providing primarily technical support, erecting strong state institutions as a panacea for the malaise of poverty, weak governance, and uncontrolled bloodshed. However, SSR’s focus on building state institutions to manage and monopolize violence came at the expense of attending to some of the factors driving instability, such as political repression, economic exclusion, and deficient, sometimes corrupted public authority. The tumultuous tide and flow of political uprisings in Egypt, and the violent response meted out by the Egyptian police and military has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow, or at least should be for many of Egypt’s military backers.
…to new considerations.
At the crux of all of this is an enduring tension that SSR has grappled with in theory, but only grazed in practice. The tension lies in, on the one hand, the dominant top-down approach to implementing security reform, and on the other hand, the political complexities and practical realities of the contexts where SSR is applied. A few basic premises warrant revisiting, including the Where, Who, and How of SSR.
To begin with, more careful consideration could be given to discerning the contexts in which SSR holds the greatest potential for success. There is reason to question whether countries recently emerging from conflict, such as Mali or South Sudan, will yield sufficient trust among political actors to pursue governance reforms in earnest. Often, if attempted too soon, such political processes can be reduced a farcical side show, while the parade of donor-supplied equipment rolls into the capital. On the other hand, promoting SSR in environments that are relatively stable may allow for more political engagement and innovation. Following this through to its logical conclusion means thought must also be given to organizational changes this would necessitate within multilateral and bilateral administrations, many of which place SSR squarely within their post-conflict recovery structures.
Secondly, when considering the ‘who’ of SSR, there is a burgeoning interest among donors (though little action, as yet) to look beyond the state. Supporting security actors who perhaps blur or fall outside the legal apparatus of the state is not without dilemmas. However, the value of working with such actors should be estimated according to their potential contribution to determining the security configurations that best serve the local context. For this to lead to improved security provision, more attention is needed on how to negotiate and constructively support the roles of various security actors that exist in situ. Conversely, providing exclusive support to state actors may actually work to shut down processes of political contestation, by allowing the privileged partners to sidestep or suppress de facto actors with stronger ties to communities’ security.
Lastly, the implementation of SSR must resist the tendency to be applied as a stabilization strategy in and of itself. If anything is to be learned from the deleterious consequences of the ‘war on terror,’ it is not to confuse a forceful response with a lasting solution. That is, addressing the symptoms of instability will often require ‘beefed-up’ security, empowered law enforcement, and perhaps even military intervention. But strengthening the tools of security provision must not overshadow fundamental governance reform. Nothing says this more clearly than the pictures of militarized police pointing guns at unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square, Grezi Park, or a suburb of St. Louis.