Understanding Impact of Police, Justice and Corrections Components in UN Peace Operations

Stimson Spotlight

Understanding Impact of Police, Justice and Corrections Components in UN Peace Operations

By William Durch and Michelle Ker - The UN Security Council is sending record numbers of personnel into peace operations of growing complexity in environments where critical government functions, including criminal justice, have decayed or collapsed.  UN efforts to restore those functions have met limited success, partly owing to resource constraints but mostly due to outsiders' limited ability to change the fundamentals of governance in conflict-affected states.

The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has, for several years, been telling the Council that the goals laid down in its mandates exceed DPKO's ability to find and retain the required expertise. Nearly all of the more than 16,000 police personnel authorized for missions by the Council, for example, are seconded by states - as individuals or members of formed police units. It is much cheaper for the UN to do this than to hire police, judicial or corrections personnel directly but as in all other areas of life, you get what you pay for. The present system tends not to deliver the planners, budgeters, trainers, institutional architects and leaders experienced in police reform needed to rebuild a police service or a court or prison system to any sort of international standard. Host states, in turn, have trouble generating and managing the revenues needed to keep them running, because formal economy is too weak to fund them or what revenue there is funds other priorities, some public, others private.

The central government's writ and reach may also have been limited, historically, beyond the capital city's immediate neighborhood. Instead, most people may be used to settling most disputes through traditional local leaders whose powers in many places are recognized by law. Summing such leaders' powers and authority does not add up to a defensible state that can credibly and regularly engage outside powers, or even aid donors or peacekeepers, on behalf of its communal parts. Until recently, however, international programs paid little attention to informal justice or focused on replacing it as soon as possible with formal criminal justice institutions. It can be difficult to reconcile local practice with the international norms that agencies are bound to observe, but not engaging such practice means ignoring what has kept communities functioning through difficult times.

Indeed, substituting unfamiliar, underfunded and potentially corrupt central institutions may leave communities even further from experience of international norms and standards, less able to influence the institutions of local order, and little better protected from larger scale, more distant threats than they were before. Such has been the case for at least the past decade in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where neighboring state interests made common cause with a shifting constellation of "violence entrepreneurs" - including elements of the Congolese army and police - who have fought for local power and wealth while preying on and displacing hundreds of thousands of Congolese citizens despite UN efforts to build up secure corridors between provincial capitals and outlying areas. The few hundred Congolese police involved in the program are heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the eastern area's multiple militias.

Liberia has done better, rolling out its UN-trained police in phases beyond the capital, Monrovia, together with a community policing initiative designed to give communities a greater voice in police matters. The Liberian National Police at present has just over 4,000 officers, about half of what Liberia is thought to need but already more than it can presently afford. Operational conditions and mobility for police remain poor overall. Two Liberian special armed police units - one US- and the other UN-trained - have yet to fully sort out their respective responsibilities.

Everything now known about reforming or reconstituting criminal justice systems says that such transformations take a long time and that reform must occur at both the individual and institutional levels, addressing in the process both capacity and integrity issues. Leaving out any of these dimensions will cripple the entire enterprise of reform. To date, DPKO has focused mostly on individual skill-building and institution-building has lagged. Even so, those involved with training tend to lack both training skills and local language ability, rotate out of mission after six to nine months and fail to record what they have done or how. Missions may also wait years for host state decisions - such as legal reforms - that will guide institutional development and so they mark time with short-term training programs that have little lasting effects.

Recent DPKO policy puts emphasis on early peacebuilding, where "early" means the first two years after signing of a peace agreement. Many activities necessary to restore criminal justice need to begin in that early period but early deployment of mission personnel is really only worthwhile if language in the peace agreement calls for it or a legitimate interim government has the authority to make decisions that are binding on its successors. Under those circumstances, a DPKO ready to provide skilled personnel who can give at least two years to the task, and pass along trusted local relationships to equally skilled and well-informed successors, can better contribute to launching the long-term process of rebuilding criminal justice in states emerging from conflict.