Security and Justice Reform Response to Covid-19 Crisis

Covid-19 is a public health crisis with great security, justice and governance repercussions. This Thematic in Practice scopes here some initial thoughts on what the international community supporting security and justice reform should know about the pandemic, informing their thinking and programming on the short term. 

This rapidly changing pandemic is redefining the international landscape, as we know it today. Public health practitioners are at the forefront of response measures, but security and justice actors are in the middle of managing a challenge that has the potential to alter socio-cultural dynamics, severely impair the economy, reassess international relations and redefine political values and the role of the State and civil society.

We will continuously summarize the emerging analysis and information by relevant Think Tanks and analysts of which would be of immediate added value to our Members.

Fragile contexts are at risk of becoming increasingly so. Conflict risks are typically exacerbated by natural disasters and the situation of marginalised populations could worsen, in particular migrant and displaced communities, already living in poor sanitary conditions and with weak access to public services.

Government responses to the virus outbreak have led to a stronger centralisation of political decision-making. Emergency measures have been announced in most of the countries suffering from this pandemic, changing the reach of oversight functions on the executive power , in particular by the Parliament. Some observers have been warning against a possible surge in autocratic rule or possible abuse of powers, in particular in countries where oversight and accountability functions are not resilient enough. Maintaining the Rule of Law, Human Rights and compliance with basic liberties could prove to be a challenge in the coming years.

The impact of this crisis on education, the economy and living conditions of thousands around the globe is expected to increase actual and perceptions of inequality, leading to discontent and social unrest around the world, particularly in countries where the socioeconomic infrastructure is too weak to absorb the repercussions.

Armed forces, police agents, civil protection agents, border guards, judiciary, lawyers and penal systems are facing events that require them to perform over and above their mandates, whilst being at high risk for contracting the virus. This will strain systems that are already often under capacitated and under resourced.    

International assistance to overseas development finds itself in front of a defining moment: How will the international community respond to this emerging threat while ensuring that the recently established fragile gains in terms of international rule of law and governance are not lost?

Immediate Challenges

  • Economic slowdown is likely to cause a decrease in Official Development Assistance (ODA) for security sector reform. Economist have already projected losses in global Gross Domestic Product over 2020. This will have undisputed impact on ODA, which has been usually associated to gross national income of donor States.
  • Progress in policy making and legal frameworks might slow down. Policy and law makers are now faced with the need to make difficult decisions. Policy and legal work for security and justice reform will probably suffer from delays in view of other pressing priorities related to economic, education and health issues. Over the short term, policy makers in SSR donor states will be unable to conduct their work due to lock-down and social distancing measures, risking significant gaps in decision-making functions within the State.  
  • Inter-communal violence, social unrest could increase. Community security will emerge as an area of concern. Economic hardships, educational challenges, limited prison capacity, the considerable recent waves of IDPs and migrants, as well as the impact of closing down borders and deeply impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, all indicate a possible surge in popular discontent and resentment.
  • Increased centralisation in political decision-making has been observed in several countries. Large scale crises tend to lead towards increased central State institutions' presence and interference in regulating the political and socioeconomic space. In certain States, where the formal sector's response to covid-19 hasn't been perceived as strong enough, State institutions have been accused of ineffectiveness. The current crises could lead to questioning of decentralisation approaches and push towards stronger centralisation of decision-making. 

Longer Term Transformations for Reform

The SSR community needs to be aware of the following potential transformational opportunities related to the current crisis:

  • Accountability and governance reforms are needed today more than ever. Security institutions are in direct contact with the community, intruding into their personal lives and enforcing confinement measures. States of emergency have been declared in most of the countries impacted by the pandemic., Parliaments, non-state organisations and citizens have a collective responsibility towards future generations to safeguard the Rule of law, human rights standards and basic liberties.
  • Overall, fragile contexts are likely to become even more fragile, and marginalised populations increasingly so. Social unrest will be a global risk and it will be particularly important to focus on state and non-state sources of resilience.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic will re-establish human security again on the forefront of the world’s concerns. Effectiveness, relevance and efficiency of State security and justice actors will be perceived today from a human security perspective above all other measures.
  • The police, armed forces, border control authorities and judiciary institutions find themselves today facing new challenges, to which they need to respond, despite absence of available SOPs or ready-made solutions. This challenge will be compounded by a decrease in available capacity available, due to Covid-19 infections within these actors.
  • The halt in the education system might lead to school dropouts, in particular if economic slowdown lingers as it is expected, having an impact on the nature and recurrence rates of crimes. Incidents in gender-based violence (which are already seen to be rising substantially), serious and organised crime, black market transactions, human trafficking and other related phenomena will need attention and response.
  • Armed forces are now acting beyond their usual mandates, focusing on community safety. Their strong capabilities in crisis management, logistics and medical support have been fully mobilised for COVID-19 response measures. Building civilian-military relations has become critical to avoid abuse of powers or misunderstanding between stakeholders.
  • The criminal justice chain will be under unprecedented challenges. After the surge in violent extremism cases, courts and judiciary authorities are now faced with the expansion of a public health pandemic which changes how they provide services to the community and challenges their commitment to transparency and effectiveness.
  • Penal reform will need increased donor support. The impact of over-crowded facilities, lack of access to health services and lack of respect of human rights are challenging the effectiveness of punitive approaches to criminal justice and may create the opportunity for scoping alternative rehabilitative measures.
  • Non-state security and justice actors might gain in importance and relevance. As States may be focusing over the next five years on responding to the crisis and rebuilding capacity where needed to manage the repercussions, communities could increasingly turn to non-state security and justice providers, including private security companies.

Reforms that Remain Relevant for Donor Support

The recent community safety imperatives along with law enforcement challenges, national emergency conditions, penal reform repercussions and wider implications for rule of law, security and justice reform is still needed. The International community’s assistance is needed, more than ever, for SSR, allowing it to provide support to:

  • Oversight & Accountability of the Executive: Under national emergency measures, the risk of abuse of power is high. Strengthening parliaments, judiciaries, civil society, the media and the public to hold security and justice actors responsible for their actions need to become the main focus of any reform process.
  • Criminal justice system reform: Strained criminal justice systems and over-crowding of penal institutions indicate the lack of sustainability of current punitive approaches and open a window of opportunity for more sustainable, rehabilitating restorative justice reforms.
  • Border Management reform: This area requires a shift in currently prevailing donor approaches to border management. With borders undergoing stricter measures of control against free movement of people, the impact on lives and livelihoods could be significant and fears are already being voiced concerning a surge in trafficking, black market trading and serious and organised crime activity. It will be essential to develop approaches that are well tailored to local and regional dynamics, needs and legal frameworks. 
  • Defence Reform: In many countries, armed forces are now focusing on community safety, in addition to their usual mandate. Reforms should focus on their community-oriented services and building positive civilian-military relations, as well as step up focus on oversight and accountability of armed forces.
  • Police Reform and Civil Protection Reform: These two institutions are combining law enforcement challenges and preserving community safety and security. Their exposure to risk is equally high. They are currently challenged with a changing mandate, for which some may not have the adequate guidance, standard procedures and tools.
  • Public Finance Management: with GDP foreseen to drop significantly, surge in unemployment, inequalities and increased poverty, public finance management should become at forefront of national governments’ agendas. Increased attention to how public finances are allocated, managed and overseen is to be expected.
  • Non-state security and justice provision: the international community has been paying increased attention to non-state justice actors and mechanisms, as well as, self-defence groups over the past years. This is appropriate timing to start harmonising understanding of desired impact and work jointly towards supporting equal, efficient and accountable security and justice services to the community in line with local ownership and sustainability principles.
  • Support to IDPs’ and migrants' communities: An increased focus by the international community is needed to understand the security and justice needs of this population over the coming years and how to ensure adequate support to this community, which will increase in vulnerability as a result of this crisis.
  • Gender-Based violence: Gender equality is an international commitment that is unfortunately still far from being achieved. This public health crisis, with its economic, educational and socioeconomic repercussions has already started to show signs of increased gender-based violence.
  • Disaster Crisis Management:  Security institutions must be prepared to respond to public health crises and other events (including natural disasters, which may be more prevalent as a result of climate change) in a way that protects the population and respects human rights. Improving response preparedness in this area can be a way to strengthen communications with the public, enhance inter-ministerial cooperation, and consider how best to prioritize and manage human, financial and material resources.
  • Intelligence oversight: This area will be important to ensure the widespread use of technology to track individual data and movement during the COVID-19 crisis does not result in routine monitoring of citizens and systemic violation of the right to privacy.

Additional Resources

SSG/R and Covid-19 products:

Other resources on COVID-19 related to SSR:

On Police and Armed Forces

Resources on COVID-19 related to Conflict and Peace

Resources on COVID-19 trackers