Parallel Session 12

Enhancing a part of the problem? The challenges of external support to security actors in politically contested regions


Security Sector Reform (SSR) and train and equip programs for security forces in third countries range among the key instruments of the German government to promote security in conflict affected societies and fragile states. They are highly sensible interventions in power struggles in politically contested spaces - such as Mali, Nigeria, the Palestine territories, Tunisia or Iraq – some focal countries of Germany’s engagement.

According to the Government’s Guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace, issued in September 2017, SSR programs and the Enable and Enhance Initiative (so-called ‘Ertüchtigungsinitiative’) shall, among other objectives, contribute to the “development of a politically legitimised and accountable security sector which meets professional standards“ as well as to the “implementation of the principle of human security“.

In fact, the two-decade old history of SSR has shown that SSR is often characterised by two extremes: SSR on the ground takes place in fragile political settings with power elites and corrupt security sector actors who are (sometimes) part of the problem. However, in its ideal form SSR is the effective and efficient provision of state and human security within a framework democratic governance.

How could these laudable objectives be achieved? This was the focal question of the workshop with panellists from the security sector, the international NGO community and three representatives from the German government, as well as participants from different regional and thematic backgrounds.

Key takeaways and recommendations for external actors engaged in SSR

External actors should adhere to the following recommendations if they are seriously committed to contributing to the two central objectives of SSR: strengthening the accountability and effectiveness of the security sector.

1. Convergence of interests is crucial
The political goal for meaningful SSR programs has to be shared both by the external party as well as the ‘host’ government and population. One of the discussants highlighted that the ‘neo-colonial attitude’ of some of the external actors, especially the French army and government, was counter-productive for SSR in Mali. Many people of the Malian society believed that geostrategic reasons and hunger for resources were the hidden agenda behind interventions and not human rights and democracy promotion.

2. Engage early enough
If conducted early enough, SSR engagements and other interventions can help to prevent the escalation of a conflict into a violent one. As was the case in Mali early warning signs were there and seen – however, the (re)action was too late, mainly due to a lack of political will.

3. Whole of government strategy needed
SSR and train and equip programs have to be designed in a way that they consistently reflect on the political nature of the intervention. If SSR and especially train and equip programs are framed and pursued in a purely technical manner – as in the Malian case - it is unlikely that they will contribute to the desired democratic reforms in the security sector and the governance system.

A whole of government strategy is needed to link the different sectorial programs and guide the external engagement towards the achievement of political objectives. Questions that need to be asked include: Who benefits from the programs– only the military, the government, or also civil society and the population? The representatives of the German government stressed that the upcoming German SSR strategy - to be finalized by the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019 – would address some of the issues and stress the need for democratic oversight and accountability promotion.

4. Go for genuine SSR
It is important that only genuine SSR is implemented as a companion to development assistance. This means that long-term projects are pursued that include cooperation with non-state actors with a strong commitment to local ownership and good governance. Quasi-SSR or SSR light activities that do not meet human security qualifications will do more harm than good.

5. A joint conflict analysis is required
At any stage of the engagement a thorough conflict-assessment should form the backbone of the SSR program. Impact assessments based on the do no harm principles should guide the programming. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has been developing and applying this tool for many years. The importance of having a joint and interministerial conflict analysis, including political, economic and military aspects, was also shared by the representative from the Federal Ministry of Defence.

6.  Address human rights violations
The Mali case showed that allegations of human rights violations by armed forces, be they Malian forces or UN forces, have to be fully investigated and perpetrators must be brought to justice. Otherwise, the local population will not build up trust in external actors and the local security forces. Lacking trust may undermine all training and SSR efforts. A government representative argued that it was important to be able to cope with some ambiguity in the programs: e.g. to train soldiers of the country, and at the same time be able to address and speak out on human rights violations by the government and/or the military of the same country.

7. Do not focus on state actors and institutions alone
One discussant raised doubts that state centered SSR initiatives were sufficient by showcasing an example of an initiative in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) where the New Zealand Government supported the introduction and training of a Community Auxiliary Police (CAP).  Officially, CAPs are part of the regular police. But in practice, they largely operate independent from and alongside it. CAP is a state program, designed to build the capacity of the state’s security sector, but this is only one side of the story: CAPs are nominated by clan and village chiefs and elders and are obliged to closely work together with these community leaders, that is: non-state actors, who they are accountable to. This kind of community policing is a practical example of hybrid policing, linking the authority of state with that of local non-state actors.

CAPs operate in rural communities, where the vast majority of Bougainvilleans live, while regular police is generally confined to the few urban areas. Such culturally acceptable provision of security seems to work in some areas too remote for state police to reach or where “ordinary” security forces would not be acceptable for cultural or other reasons to the local population. One representative of the German government replied that such an approach was difficult for the German Foreign Policy to pursue except if asked by the respective host government. However, he found the idea interesting to be followed up in case there was a (formal) connection between state and non-state security systems.

8. Go for small and practical solutions
External actors should be open and supportive of small and practical solutions. Examples for successes include Cambodia, where the fact that soldiers were usually taking their arms home after their service was a major source of high levels of domestic violence. An improved registration and control of these arms already helped to diminish cases of domestic violence.

9. Training programs should follow these specific recommendations:

  • External actors should not start and conduct their engagement with a set of defined measures and a defined program, but listen to the needs expressed by those to be trained / capacitated first.
  • Trainings should not be carried out by experts from abroad but rather by people from the region. Trainers and trainees should be able to communicate in “their” language.
  • Case studies should come from the region and should in some way or the other relate to the realities of the situation of those being trained / capacitated.
  • In the event that no local/regional expertise can be used for the trainings, the trainers should stay for a minimum period of 12 months and should possess the necessary qualifications for becoming role-models.
  • Depending on the wishes and status of those to be trained, trainings should not be made public, as otherwise the respective forces might lose face, as well as the trust of the local population (whom they are supposed to protect and who trust them to be able to do so).



  • Thomas Helfen, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany
  • Arne Schuler, Federal Ministry of Defence, Germany
  • Ferdinand von Weyhe, Federal Foreign Office, Germany
  • Emma Leslie, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Cambodia
  • Ismaila Cissé, Former General, Forces Armées et de Sécurité du Mali

Facilitator: Herbert Wulf, Founding Director, Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), Germany