SSR and Libya - How Early is Too Early?

by Gordon Hughes · May 30th, 2011.

We hear that the EU External Action Service has taken a decision to set up an EU Office in Benghazi. The stated aim of this EU initiative is to better support civil society; the interim transitional national council; security sector reform (SSR); as well as education, health care and security on the borders.  Some might consider this a bold decision. Others might think that such a move it is premature whilst conflict continues to rage in parts of the country.

Regarding SSR, this raises an important question.  Is it too early to start SSR in Libya?  How early is too early?

The SSR community is acutely aware that conflicts (especially civil/internal conflicts) are messy affairs, and there is rarely a clear line between open conflict and peace (absence of conflict).  The transition is indeterminate in terms of conflict levels and time – it can take years.  Many think of this transition as the “stabilization” period.  It follows that the point along this transition when the International Community can usefully support SSR is also difficult to determine.  There are some advantages in getting an SSR planning process started early:

-  Initial scoping of the context for future SSR planning can get underway.

-  Networks can be built and future security sector leaders identified.  For sure, those that will have most influence on the future size and shape of the security sector are already playing influential roles in parts of the present unrest and conflict.

-  Planning can start on the “SSR Component” of any peace agreement, which is often relegated to a technical annex rather than being a central strand for successful transformation.

-  Options can be explored for “stabilizing” the security sector.  Security forces and agencies that are emerging from conflict may be highly unstable.  Time is needed for security forces to return from their “war footing” or a state of high operational readiness to some degree of peacetime normality.  This would include a return to barracks by combat troops.  In certain contexts the security sectors may have fractured and renegade elements may have broken away and polarized around leaders outside the regular chain of command.  Indeed sporadic fighting might still be continuing, and in some instances, between components of the security sector, such as happened in East Timor between the Army and the Police.  Instability and continuing conflict will distract components of the security sector from focusing on longer term planning for transformation.

-  Promote the essential linkages between the political and security negotiations

-  and so on.......

Any potential multilateral or bilateral partner will think carefully before applying the SSR development instrument too early.  Mindful of the objectives of SSR (essentially to build long term effectiveness and strengthen accountablity of the security sector) it would be premature to start police or military training programmes under the guise of SSR.  It would also be inappropriate to bring into a conflict-affected country new security equipment or pursue independent security projects unconnected to wider national security needs/plans.  If new security/justice initiatives do not seek to deliver sustainable security and justice to people and societies, then they should not be dressed up as SSR.  And "rogue projects" that are not based on national requirements and decisions should not be regarded as SSR - they could do more harm than good.  

In the case of Libya, if there is going to be any form of internal settlement between the Government in Tripoli and the “Rebels” in Benghazi then one of the most important strands of any negotiated agreement will be future security arrangements in general, and, in particular, the security and justice sector objectives following a period of transformation.  If there is an outright “victory” the future security arrangements will still have to be defined, possibly following a national security review.

All of this suggests that it is never too early to get involved in thinking and planning for longer term transformation of the security and justice sectors.  Indeed, in an ideal world, early engagement in SSR in conflict prone countries such as Libya, might have prevented conflict in the first place.  But that is a whole new discussion area – how to use SSR as a process and platform for conflict prevention.

The issue is not so much about the question: is it too early?  Rather it is about how we approach the major challenges of stabilization and transformation of the security and justice sectors in such a fragile and difficult context. There is little point in trying to advocate for better security sector accountability and oversight arrangements when both sides are still locked in conflict.  The conflict situation may need to run its course before there is adequate stability to enable some early sequencing of preliminary SSR steps.  One thing is for sure, the EU, and the International Community more broadly, should seek to work in partnership with the future Libyan political and security sector key leaders so that they take ownership of their future.  Sensitive political and technical advice will be important as new state institutions are built and a more forward looking national security policy is formulated for the New Libya.  This raises a new challenge - can the EU harness the right level of SSR experience and skills from across member states to actually make a difference during “Springtime” in Libya?

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