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The Future of Security Sector Reform in Conflict-Affected States


In the international community, Security Sector Reform (SSR) is widely accepted as an essential element of the state-building and global peace-building processes. It refers to the attempt of consolidating peace in a fragile or conflict-affected state by reforming its security and justice institutions. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), fragile states cannot provide security within their borders and basic services to their population, which are often accompanied by human rights violations and systemic discrimination. This lack of capacity is often the result of or emphasized by an inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable security sector. Beginning in 1999, when the concept of SSR was first coined, the policy model underwent rapid development to become a key element of the liberal peace project. As an integral part of UN peacekeeping operations, the goal of SSR is to establish democratically governed security and justice institutions that can protect the population from internal and external threats. This is a key factor in stabilizing and reconstructing fragile or conflict-affected states since security is perceived as a pre-condition for sustainable peace and development. SSR intervention has proven to be successful in post-authoritarian states under stable conditions conducive to reform, such as in the cases of South Africa and former Soviet states. However, it is not suitable to be implemented in conflict-affected states as they are amid fundamental systemic change, exhibit a high degree of human and state insecurity, and do not have the necessary foundations of a liberal state. To envision a possible future of SSR intervention in conflict-affected states, this article will focus on its current characteristics, reasons for failure, and how it can be adapted according to the hybrid school of thought.

There are several essential elements when implementing SSR, the most important being local ownership, civil society engagement, and sustainability. Firstly, local ownership refers to the extent to which reform processes are driven and supervised by local actors. Therefore, these reform processes ought to be horizontally inclusive, urging all political parties to participate, and vertically inclusive, inviting multiple civil society bodies to negotiations. SSR which is predominantly driven by international actors (“donors”) is unlikely to result in sustainable peace since the decisions lack legitimacy and local consensus, resulting in non-implementation or selective adoption of reforms or relapse into conflict once the donors have left the country. Secondly, civil society engagement refers to strengthening the dialogue between civil society organizations (CSOs) and security actors, which is used as a mechanism to ensure the security sector’s transparency and accountability. CSOs can either perform watchdog roles, demanding insight into the governmental decision-making process, or consultative roles, providing diverse perspectives on government policies regarding public security issues. The challenge of operationalizing this element is the required minimum standard of freedom of expression. Thirdly, sustainability refers to the construction of a self-sufficient security sector that does not rely on external resources. Sustainable peace can only be achieved if the SSR processes are compatible with the financial resources, human capital, and culture of the recipient state. Therefore, an adequate size of the security forces must be determined to be able to provide equitable and high-quality services to the population. A Western-modelled security sector can most likely not be sustained by the recipient state’s resources without international funds. Nevertheless, this has been the usual approach of international donors.

The current implementation of SSR has proven to be unsuccessful in conflict-affected states. To a large extent, this is due to the assumption that Western principles regarding state structures and security are universal and applicable in every setting. However, security is defined differently depending on cultural and historical context as well as national objectives, resulting in different understandings of how the state and the security sector ought to be structured and governed. This inapplicability of Western security sector templates is due to the lack of the recipient state’s desire and capacity to implement those leading to a policy-practice gap. Hence, the SSR model in practice tends to neglect its core promises by returning to practices similar to the Cold War train-and-equip model. This model can be characterized as regime-centric instead of people-centered, donor-driven instead of locally driven, and defining the security sector narrowly, engaging only with conventional security actors and excluding civil society. SSR is merely utilized to contain the threat which these conflict-affected states pose to the liberal international order, which is counterproductive to the original objective of creating sustainable peace. In the aftermath of 9/11, SSR has been increasingly instrumentalized as a tool to pursue the donor’s political interests, particularly in the US-led “war on terror”. Humanitarian motives are merely used to legitimize intervention, which is why SSR critics have begun to raise concerns regarding its neo-colonialist character.

The unsuccessful application of SSR in conflict-affected states has led to emerging critiques, for instance, the hybrid school. This school of thought identifies rigid state centrism and an apolitical outlook as the main problem of SSR interventions. Additionally, the normative character of SSR prevents success because it focuses on who ought to be providing security instead of aligning its programs with the local realities of who is providing security. The hybrid school challenges the assumption that the state is the only legitimate actor to provide security and justice and identifies that non-state actors are similarly capable. Western principles of peace and security and Weberian state structures are often foreign to traditional societies, which is why local security bodies such as informal anti-crime groups or clan militias often enjoy a higher degree of legitimacy within the population. Therefore, SSR practitioners should first understand the local needs, capabilities, and power relations and then engage in strengthening the capabilities and performance of those existing security bodies. Moreover, the hybrid school debunks the myth that non-state actors are invariably enemies of the state since conflict tends to blur the line between state and non-state actors. However, it acknowledges that traditional groups often provide security based on patriarchal and discriminatory principles, although this can also be applied to the state sphere, meaning it is a common characteristic of fragile and conflict-affected states. Overall, the goal is to facilitate collaboration between state and non-state actors resulting in co-governance arrangements that improve human security.

While the current SSR framework provides a standardized vision of the desired outcomes of the reforms and how those outcomes can be achieved, the hybrid school framework is characterized by uncertain outcomes. However, the empirical evidence of unsuccessful SSR interventions in conflict-affected states such as Afghanistan demonstrates the necessity of a paradigm shift from liberal peace to post-liberal peace. Post-liberal peace rejects the notion of liberal superiority and universality and instead acknowledges alternative forms of politics, focusing on local traditions which hold political potential for peace. The operationalization of the hybrid school approach carries great risk for donors due to diverging interests and world views between them and local actors, which is why liberal peace remains dominant in international policy circles. As a result, empirical evidence justifying the hybrid school as a new SSR framework does not yet exist; nevertheless, there is empirical evidence of successful hybrid arrangements in Western states. For instance, in Canada, non-state security bodies such as the Aboriginal Peacekeeping Units operate alongside the state, resulting in an effective hybrid arrangement that maintains order adjusted to the Aboriginal culture. While the conditions for the establishment of such arrangements are not comparable to those in conflict-affected states, it proves that they are sustainable in practice. Nevertheless, the hybrid school does not offer a complete substitute for conventional SSR as it presents a sub-model tailored to a specific reform context. This emphasizes the importance of creating a typology of SSR responses based on different reform contexts such as low-income, conflict-affected, or post-authoritarian settings.

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