Reconciling Security Sector Reform and the Protection of Civilians in Peacekeeping Contexts

Issue Brief
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By Aditi Gorur and Fairlie Chappuis:

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo directly resulted in the deaths of 860,000 people, mostly civilians, over the period 2007–2010.  The vast majority of these deaths occurred at the hands of rebels, demobilized combatants or state security forces.  It was therefore entirely appropriate that in 2009 the United Nations Security Council made the protection of civilians (POC) and supporting security sector reform (SSR) two of the top priorities for its mission in the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is just one of many countries in which U.N. peacekeeping operations are now tasked with both POC and SSR, but the U.N. has never defined how the two agendas are supposed to relate to each other. Instead, it has assumed that they must be mutually reinforcing. While there are important links between protecting civilians and reforming the security sector, realizing the goals of POC while simultaneously supporting national efforts at SSR is fraught with complex challenges. A new Issue Brief produced by the Stimson Center and the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces recommends ways for U.N. peacekeeping operations to reinforce the convergences between POC and SSR and to mitigate the tensions between them.

The major challenge for a peacekeeping operation is understanding how to support state security forces to become more accountable public service providers when those same forces are responsible for abusing the civilian population. Supporting the reform of a country’s security sector – including its armed forces, its police, its justice system, and the government offices responsible for management and oversight of security – requires a close relationship with a country’s government and personnel within the security sector. But peacekeepers often struggle to maintain these close relationships while also protecting civilians from violence perpetrated by the state.

A lack of clarity in how POC and SSR work together can cause confusion both for local populations and for peacekeepers trying to execute a mandate that prioritizes both of these activities. If peacekeepers witness violations by members of the security sector, they may be unsure how to react. Should peacekeepers privilege their mandate to protect civilians, and instantly intervene in the case of abuse even if this jeopardizes their ability to work more closely with the security sector and ultimately prevent future abuses? Or is some level of minor abuse inevitable as peacekeepers try to work with the security sector to reduce the likelihood of serious violations, and if so, how can civilians trust peacekeepers to protect them?

Another important challenge is related to timing. POC is primarily a short-term agenda; it aims for international peacekeepers to protect civilians from immediate violence when the state is unable or unwilling to do so. In contrast, comprehensive SSR aims to empower the state and its security sector to protect the local population, and this task can take decades. Peacekeepers may be pulled in different directions by these different timelines. Should peacekeepers focus on training and equipping security forces to help them protect the population from immediate violence even if this runs the risk of making these forces more dangerous in the long run? Or should they focus instead on comprehensive reforms to security sector institutions that will improve both effectiveness and accountability over time but risk leaving civilians exposed to violence and abuse in the short-term?

Despite these considerable tensions, policymakers and practitioners, including U.N. peacekeeping operations, tend to assume that POC and international support to SSR are inherently compatible. The idea that SSR always, everywhere and necessarily contributes to the immediate goals of POC is a widespread misunderstanding of both POC and SSR, which allows potential risks and unintended consequences to go unnoticed. This misunderstanding leads to poor policy and practice in both POC and SSR support, creating risks to civilians and to the credibility and legitimacy of peacekeeping operations. It also leads to missed opportunities in both POC and SSR, because recognizing and resolving tensions also creates opportunities to maximize the benefits from aligning these two related but separate agendas.

This Issue Brief is part of Stimson’s series of Civilians in Conflict Issue Briefs. Other Issue Briefs in this series include Community Perceptions as a Priority in Protection and Peacekeeping and Community Self-Protection Strategies: How Peacekeepers Can Help or Harm.

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