Supreme Audit Institutions: a new frontier of security sector governance? | Part II

by Anícia Lalá · January 20, 2017.

In the first part of this blog I interrogated the type of support being provided to the SAIs in order to aptly carry out their part in the oversight of the security sector, and established that there is a lack of systematised knowledge deriving from evidence based research on the topic.

What is uncontested, however, is that the generic role of supervision of public accounts could allow the SAIs an authoritative position from which to audit the financial records of the defence and security sector. Even a minimalist approach through an observer role may become a driver towards improvement of internal accountability mechanisms by the defence and security institutions, given the value of prospective scrutiny.  Legal oversight has the potential to deter corruption, whilst a sanctioning function restrains arbitrary and unlawful exercise of public authority over defence and security spending. A significant impact is likely to occur considering that procurement and contracting are areas more prone to corruption and political manipulation. This is even truer in the security sector, where transactions can be shrouded in secrecy and protected from scrutiny under the guise of classified information.

These points to the need for linking institutional support to SAIs with a wider process of legal reform, drawing not only on their specific role, but also on how legislation concerning Freedom and Access to Information impacts their activity.  Provisions for SAIs’ unlimited access to defence and security information are important[1], even if their specialised staff needs to undergo a vetting process, and the publication of results of certain domains has to be restricted.  It is also important to counteract the overuse of clauses of exception to evade internal and external mechanisms of accountability in the context of other national security related legislation. The SAIs can operate within classified security environments, overseeing public interest and protecting the need for security of information at the same time, provided adequate legislation and mechanisms are established.

The SAIs’ contribution to security sector governance needs to be clearly defined considering the multiple layers of oversight over defence and security forces.  Hence, it is crucial to forge and strengthen links with CSO and Parliament.  For example, SAIs can pave the way for better parliamentary oversight by producing reports on the basis of which specialised parliamentary committees may question security institutions’ management of their accounts. Such a process could operate well within the levels of confidentiality required by a classified information environment. More importantly, where effective parliamentary oversight is blocked by party disciplinary vote - which often happens concerning matters of defence and security – the SAIs can play a stronger oversight and administrative sanctioning role, if necessary complemented through directing cases of criminal misconduct to the judiciary.

Of course SAIs are not magic bullets and limitations exist. The SAIs do not audit extra-budgetary funds such as those of aid project funding, which highlights the importance of these contributions being incorporated by the Executive in the state general budget.  This may not occur due to burdensome administrative processes, but there are also instances where this is done by design, to conceal associated corruption, even where national security concerns are at stake, as illustrated by recent developments in Mozambique.  It is extremely difficult for the Court to detect off-budget defence and security expenditures especially within the realm of intelligence services, working in conjunction with elements of the defence structure and presidential guard. Cross-correlations with audits in areas prone to incestuous budgeting practices, like the extractive industry contracts, may provide pointers. Here, for instance, interaction with investigative media and research institutions focusing on public financial management, integrity and corruption may prove fruitful.

Programmatic practice is lagging behind in considering the relational aspects of defence and security oversight.  This suggests a strong case to incorporate, or at least purposely align programmes of support to the SAIs with justice and security reform programmes, especially where the institutional framework the SAI uses is the judicial model.  They share institutional development challenges with the remaining judicial actors, in particular as concerns the strengthening of independence, of internal integrity mechanisms, and of technical capacity building.  Yet, this seems to go unnoticed in security and justice programming, which tends to focus mainly on the criminal justice system, and in particular in the judiciary.

This is complemented by disproportional emphasis and funding put onto the criminal justice chain as it concerns matters of public order, when compared to addressing economic criminal conduct that affects negatively the economic engine of many fragile states.  The sophistication of the latter often materialised through collusion to break the law between public sector actors and private big business, including international commercial banking requires strengthened attention.  This could be better addressed by the SAIs than by the traditional justice sector models prone to detect and prosecute lower-level individual criminal conduct. Thus, equal consideration should be awarded to the judicial contribution to public financial oversight of the security sector, as this lies at the core of sustainability of Security and Justice Reforms, and its default can fuel corruption and ruin poverty reduction and other development efforts.

[1] In some countries legislation determines that information to investigate suspicions of corruption has to be made available by the defence and security institutions, similarly to what happens with regards to information on human rights violations by security forces, which has to be made available to the judiciary.