Police Academy:  The UN Security Council Considers the Needs of the Security Sector, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Aug

This past Friday, Nigeria led the UN Security Council in a discussion on Security Sector Reform (SSR) that hit almost all the right notes and helped push forward an important agenda that Nigeria itself had initiated during its last tenure (2014) as Security Council president.

The concept note prepared by Nigeria for this meeting was comprehensive in scope and generous in its observations about the need for an “SSR Compact” that cuts across sectors and involves (or should involve) a wide range of national and international actors, including the UN General Assembly and other UN capacities associated with peace operations and sustainable development.  Indeed, Nigeria’s intent was evident from the briefers asked to participate in this debate – from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the UN Development Program, and the office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Over and over, the point was made that national security institutions must be able to “provide security to the population in an effective and accountable manner,” and that such “peace sustainment” (ASG Titov, DPKO) requires wisdom and political commitment well beyond that which might emanate from the Security Council.

With the exception of a few botched attempts to pronounce the names of the presenters, and given references to the stalled peace process in South Sudan by both Russia and the US, Council member statements were helpful and relevant to both the concept note and the issues of peace and security which can more readily be resolved through reliable, accountable security sector engagements. Presenters and diplomats alike understood well the implications of SSR for the general health of societies, especially those emerging from conflict.   They also recognized the indispensability of a vibrant security sector to the fulfillment of cross-cutting, comprehensive, sustainable development goals (SDGs), including the ability of that sector to control borders (Chad), interdict illicit weapons (Malaysia), help rebuild trust in state legitimacy (Spain and Venezuela), promote “community policing” and other place-based initiatives (US), encourage “parallel adjustments” in prison and judicial systems (Chile), eliminate economic inequalities (China) and support more mediation efforts to resolve violence in its early stages (Jordan).

There was even a most welcome acknowledgment by ASG Titov (echoed by the UK) that SSR should be understood as part of our conflict prevention responsibilities rather than an obligation assumed only after state institutions are under siege from terrorists or altogether lying in ruins.  And SRSG Bangura’s idea that “vigilance” regarding commitments to end sexual violence has value in terms of the “professionalization” of SSR is certainly worth a second (and third) look.

Still, despite all of the welcome reflection, the constant referencing to successes in SSR being “as much political as technical” requires a bit of interrogation.

I understand what Council members and briefers intend by this.   They understand that a well-armed, well-trained security sector must remain under effective state control, especially during times of high tension; and that such states must be committed to non-discriminatory application of security sector capacities with full regard for the rights of both the accused and incarcerated.   Council members also understood that a fair and functional security sector can promote state confidence and legitimacy in the same way that an unfair and dysfunctional sector can undermine them.  At the same time, ASG Nakamitsu (UNDP) seemed to warn the Council against being too impatient with SSR, urging members instead to do more to build “political will” for sustained SSR beyond what can reasonably be expected to be accomplished by peace operations or other UN country team components.

But beyond this, I also know that when many global constituents hear the word “political” coming from key UN agencies, especially given all of the security-related controversies currently filling our airwaves, what they are more likely to hear is “politicized.” And “politicized” is anathema to the sustainable trust-building to which Security Council members and their briefers aspire.

As well it should be. We want our security sector to be as professional as possible in the best sense – responsive of course, but respectful also.   Well-equipped of course, but also restrained in the uses to which that equipment is put, even under the most threatening of circumstances. Able to manage security-related crises of course, but also to manage them in a manner that does not violate the fundamental rights of either victims or perpetrators.

Security provision in this best and perhaps more technical sense, is difficult business; even more in societies emerging from conflict where much of a security sector may lie in shambles with spoilers seeking to take advantage amidst the ruins.    But when that “business” becomes unconstrained, when training on the use of force and the rights of citizens has been insufficient or – shall we say – “politicized,” then prospects for abuse and suspicion abound.  Then we are more likely to have the specter of a security sector that defends some interests and not others; that enforces laws in some public sectors and neighborhoods and not in others; that defends the interests of the powerful against the legitimate interests of the weak or marginal; that takes liberties with the very same laws that it is otherwise sworn to uphold.

When it comes to the matter of SSR — urgent for so many aspects of peace transitions, public safety and even social participation – we should remain wary of any implications that might place the political and technical at cross purposes. Rather, we must do all we can to ensure that “political” dimensions do not degenerate into “politicized” applications that only increase the “fear” by women and other citizens that, as noted by Lithuania and other states, a properly engaged, justice-committed security sector should aim to remove.   Simply put, a politicized security sector only makes it more likely that the technical competencies assembled by state security forces will serve discriminatory, unjust ends rather than inspire public confidence.

The Nigerian “Compact” is well-conceived, clearly needed and consistent with ASG Titov and Council members’ admonitions for “balanced,” state-driven, mutually reinforcing SSR.   We urge Nigeria to continue to organize these important discussions throughout the UN system beyond the end of its Security Council service later this year.

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