The Case for SSR as a Conflict Prevention Measure

by Thammy Evans · August 28th, 2015.

Last week the UN Security Council held a closed (but televised) session on the implementation of UNSCR 2151 (2014) on the role of SSR in building effective and accountable security and justice institutions. In his statement to the session, Assistant Secretary General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions, Dimitry Titov, asserted that ‘security sector management should obviously concentrate on post-conflict situations; but it could also be used for preventative purposes in some contexts’.

Searching under the thematic ‘SSR’, the UN Peacemaker database returns 96 peace agreements, starting with the 1985 Uganda Peace Talks Agreement for the Restoration of Peace to the Sovereign State of the Republic of Uganda.

In all of these peace agreements, reform of the security sector is a part of the agreement in some cases because security forces had been ineffective, but mostly because the security sector had lacked integrity and accountability to democratic processes, leading to their instrumentalisation and to  gross violations of conduct and human rights. The inclusion of SSR (in all its forms and variations1) firstly indicates an attempt to deal with the one of the major causes of escalation in violent conflict (and not just the symptoms), and secondly implies that if SSR has been started earlier and/or more widely, escalation to violent conflict could have been better managed or possibly even averted.

SSR is increasingly commonly seen in peace agreements as a means to help entrench peace, and build resilience into the fabric of a state so that it can cope with conflict. As a result, SSR has become to be seen as a post-conflict tool. Violence, however, is frequently recurring2, especially in societies where resilience to cope with conflict at early levels is insufficient. Whilst SSR has been used to tackle the causes of first generation violence after the occurrence of intra- or inter-state violence, it is not yet well-established and supported long-term as a means to prevent a slide back into violence nor to prevent the occurrence of second generation violence3.

Efforts to embed resilience through long-term measures and programmes addressing the sustainability of SSR are often not even addressed from the outset, or are curtailed. Donor attention for long-term resilience is often abandoned in favour of the next phenomena that looms large in the media and catches the attention of politicians such as, this year, countering violent extremism. As a result, SSR programming and support by donors can tend to peter out before resilience is well rooted, and just as opportunities for second generation violent conflict are taking hold. Once outside assistance and opportunities for internal solutions are diverted elsewhere, ie once the eye is off the ball, tell tale signs of re-escalation are often overlooked and, importantly, options for turning back escalation may not be sufficient (see Figure 1 below). By the time outside attention and options are made available again, it is often too little too late.

It is difficult to point to completely successful cases of SSR, due to the many contributing factors needed for success and inherent in its holistic nature. Four basic necessary tenets or characteristics are fundamental to taking an SSR approach to a reform activity:

  1. SSR is political in nature, both in the Host Nation as well as in the donor state, thus an SSR approach must tackle the politics as well as the technical and holistic aspects of reform
  2. It must balance effectiveness and accountability, with the ultimate aim of improving human security, not just that of the state
  3. National ownership of SSR (as enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 2151 (2014) must consist of structural involvement of the entire nation and not just a declaration of political buy-in
  4. It must be sustainable into the long-term and beyond the support of donors.

The omission of one of these tenets tends to let the case for successful SSR down. With this in mind, a number of cases of post-conflict reform of the security sector have illustrated the success of generational engagement, notably in Japan after WWII, in Germany twice (after WWII and on reunification), in much of Eastern Europe after the Cold War, and in some of the Balkans.

A number of cases show the risks of abandoning reform efforts prematurely (either from donor assistance reduction or attention deficit, of from host nation rejection), such as Iraq, Macedonia, potentially Afghanistan as well as South Africa and Nigeria.

A few cases illustrate the tentative progress in reform which has turned a previously unaccountable and destructive security sector (who were a contributing cause of previous escalation of violence) into a respected force or service, who show resilience and integrity in the face of conflict escalation and even praised for their role in attempting to de-escalate potential violence. Such cases include Burundi, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe.

The cases highlighted above are heuristic at best, but nonetheless suggest and support the need to deal with the causes early rather than with the symptoms too late. Recent donor favour for countering violent extremism risk abandoning hard won gains in SSR, and risk failing to see the structural role that SSR can play in preventing an escalation to violent extremism. Countering violent extremism that focuses too much on post-extremism counter-terrorist actions are loaded with second and third order consequences which can exacerbate the situation.4 Whereas an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.5 Here, SSR has a role.

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[1] SSR as a general term can cover a variety of preferred terms including ‘security and justice sector reform’, ‘security sector governance/transformation/development’, ‘security system reform’ etc.
[2] See Paul Collier, Development and Conflict, Oxford University, 2004, p8,  ‘The risks of conflict relapse are very high during the first postconflict decade – typically around 50%.’
[3] See for instance the World Bank World Development Report 2011, p4, Figure 1.2, ‘Homicides have increased in every country in Central America since 1999, including those that had made great progress in addressing political conflict – and this is not unique: countries such as South Africa face similar second generation challenges. In Guatemala, for example, criminal violence today kills more people every year than the civil war in the 1980s did.’
[4] See for instance the use of detainee camps in Iraq
[5] Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania  Gazette, 4 February 1735.
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