Security sector reform and conflict prevention

Albrecht Schnabel


Conflict prevention is crucially important for creating stable and safe environments for people and states, for development and business. In two aspects, security sector reform (SSR) is particularly important for conflict prevention. First, SSR helps security institutions, as well as those institutions mandating and overseeing their work, to be in the best possible position to provide effective, efficient, and accountable security in order to prevent the escalation of insecurity and violence. Second, in cases where security institutions are among the very sources of insecurity, they need to be reformed so that they prevent - and not cause - insecurity.

SSR supports conflict prevention, and conflict prevention is an important pillar for peace, stability, and development. Putting it differently, investing in SSR such as developing SSR strategies, programs, and activities and promoting good security sector governance (SSG) principles, supports stability, prevents violent conflicts - both sudden and protracted ones - and sustains safe environments for economic investment, cooperation, and development. Failing to invest in it would be a strategic mistake from both political and economic standpoints. The following pages offer an overview of SSG and SSR, conflict prevention, and the link between them, before reflecting on the Swiss tradition of promoting good SSG globally and on the opportunity for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote good SSG among the countries participating in the BRI.

The security sector, good security sector governance, and security sector reform

The 2008 report on security sector reform by the UN Secretary-General offers a solid framework for a common, comprehensive, and coherent approach by the United Nations and its member states, reflecting shared principles, objectives and guidelines for the development and implementation of SSR (Hanggi and Scherrer 3-4). The report notes that:

It is generally accepted that the security sector includes defense, law enforcement, corrections, intelligence services and institutions responsible for border management, customs and civil emergencies. Elements of the judicial sector responsible for the adjudication of cases of alleged criminal conduct and misuse of force are, in many instances, also included. Furthermore, the security sector includes actors that play a role in managing and overseeing the design and implementation of security, such as ministries, legislative bodies and civil society groups. Other non-state actors that could be considered part of the security sector include customary or informal authorities and private security services.

(United Nations “Securing Peace and Development” para. 14; OECD/DAC; United Nations Development Programme 87)

As the security sector’s main purpose is to provide security as a public service to a state and its population, SSR needs to follow basic good governance principles. What do those principles of “good governance” mean when applied to security institutions? A brief look at some core good governance principles highlights their importance for the security sector:

  • Participation: Security institutions and their personnel are representative of the population they serve, including women and men, and all ethnic groups.
  • Equity!inclusivity: All members of society can join the security institutions, are treated equally by them and can participate in commenting on them - they see them as “their institutions” that are providing an important public service.
  • Rule of law: The impartial enforcement of and adherence to law is crucial; security providers are not above the law and do not enjoy impunity; legal frameworks also must reflect the aspirations and roles of modern and professional security institutions.

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  • Transparency: Civil authorities and civil society actors have access to information about the work of their security institutions.
  • Responsiveness: The professional and timely delivery of security and justice as a public service can be expected; the institution displays a distinct service-orientation.
  • Consensus orientation: Coherent policies and responsibilities of the sector are based on inclusive and broad stakeholder consultation processes; ownership, direction, and scope of reforms are broadbased and broadly supported.
  • Effectiveness and efficiency: Effective and professional management of security institutions and delivery of services is in place, based on a smart use of human capital and financial resources, while available resources match mandates, tasks, and efforts towards meeting good governance principles.
  • Accountability: Security sector actors provide explanations and justifications, and accept responsibility for actions and decisions; they have structures in place that guarantee internal accountability and accountability to democratic and civilian authorities, as well as civil society organizations.

By promoting good governance principles in reform efforts, security institutions are more accountable to the state and its people; effective, efficient, and affordable; respectful of international norms, standards, and human rights; and considered as legitimate security providers by all stakeholders. They are respected, instead of feared by the people they serve.

The academic and practitioner literature as well as official and operational and institutional statements highlight that meaningful SSR should additionally embrace the following principles:

  • • SSR should be people-centered, locally owned, and based on democratic norms, human rights principles, and the rule of law, so that it can provide freedom from fear and measurable reductions in armed violence and crime. This principle must be upheld in both the design and the implementation of SSR programs. It should not simply remain at the level of proclamation and intention (Nathan; Donais).
  • • SSR must be seen as a framework to structure our thinking about how to address diverse security challenges facing states and their populations, through more integrated development and security policies and greater civilian involvement and oversight. National, broad and public consultation processes as well as a national security strategy are thus inherent requirements of feasible SSR strategies.
  • • SSR activities should form part of multisectoral strategies, based on broad assessments of the range of security and justice needs of the people and the state. They have to respond to the needs of all stakeholders.
  • • SSR must be implemented through clear processes and policies that enhance institutional and human capacities to ensure that security policy can function effectively and justice can be delivered equitably (United Nations “Maintenance of International Peace”; European Commission; Council of the European Union; Hanggi).

While various types of reforms could take place (and have always taken place) within the security sector that do not aim at meeting SSG principles, these do not qualify as SSR. Such reforms include traditional train-and-equip activities that are part of military or police reforms outside the remit of SSR. While strengthening the effectiveness of security institutions’ performance, such reforms change very little in the way security institutions are run, governed, and perceived not only by the government, but also by the population they serve. Yet, these limited, technical reforms within individual security institutions (such as the military or police) are often preferred over more far-reaching SSR. Experience with close engagement throughout many regions of the world, including Asia, shows that, while the main tenets of SSG and SSR are usually not put in question, SSR sits less comfortably with governments favoring more centralized rule and limited oversight of security institutions by civilian actors. In such contexts, both political and military elites might fully appreciate the principles of SSG and SSR, yet for various reasons they do not want to be subjected to parliamentary oversight or managed by civilian ministries. In such situations, SSR can still focus on sensitization and investment in certain good governance principles, while waiting for a more conducive political environment supporting more far-reaching reforms.

Quite often - and this is the case not only in particularly difficult and challenging SSR environments - skepticism about SSR grows from a feeling that the approach to SSG and SSR needs to be adjusted to a country’s cultural, political, and historical contexts. Sometimes the main tenets of SSG and SSR are considered to be unduly influenced by Western or Northern notions of governance and the roles of security institutions in society (Schnabel “Ideal Requirements”). However, extensive engagement in SSG and SSR debates and applications in various regions around the world shows that their main tenets are not rejected

Security sector reform 119 as Western/Northern notions. The challenges and responses that necessitate SSR remain very similar, regardless of whether seen from the North or the South: however, while the focus of SSR should be on SSG principles, the scope and sequencing of reforms must be attuned to local contexts and conditions (Aguja and Schnabel). Thus, while the concepts of SSG and SSR are not challenged in their basic foundations, different levels of willingness and preparedness to engage in SSR exist, depending on the nature of the political system, political stability, and economic well-being of the society concerned. As will be argued in more detail below, an effective, efficient and accountable security sector that is able to protect society against internal and external threats makes a strong contribution to internal and external peace and stability.

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