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Security and justice in fragile states

Written by Pilar Domingo


By Timothy Othieno and Pilar Domingo

The recent launch of the UK Government’s White Paper  ushered in much-needed change in how the Government engages in fragile situations. It was refreshing to see an emphasis on placing security and justice at the centre of state-building. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is committed to triple its funding to ensure that people in fragile environments have access to security and justice as essential ‘services’, and to build international partnership to these services in fragile situations. Especially welcome is the nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of how violence and impunity affect people’s everyday lives, through armed conflict, crime and different forms of inter-personal violence.

The inability of states to protect their citizens from violence (security), or to ensure suitable mechanisms of redress and rights protection (justice) is characteristic of fragile situations. And in many cases, states themselves are the primary violators of the principles of security and justice.

While DFID’s aspirations and financial commitments to fragile situations are welcome, ensuring public access to security and justice is no easy task. At the heart of this lies the challenge of building rule of law, that elusive principle by which, on the one hand, states can be held to account, and on the other, states are able to enforce the law, (through legitimate coercion if necessary, but preferably through consent), to resolve conflict in peaceful ways, and to keep unruly elites and criminal elements in check.  Security and justice are indeed basic services, but above all they are core constituent parts of the state and make other services possible. And crucially, they should be at the service of citizens.

Security and justice cannot be treated as stand-alone issues and they should not be addressed in separate silos. Taking on security and justice includes at least three key elements:

  • first, reforming traditional security actors such as the armed forces and police and weighing the risks and benefits of non-state security providers;
  • second reforming justice and law enforcement institutions (courts and prisons);
  • third, working with civil society organisations as well as community or non-state forms of justice and conflict resolution.

The devil lies in the detail, and dealing with the dilemmas of sequencing and which reforms to prioritise must be rooted in deep contextual and political analysis. Crucially, security and justice reforms must be embedded in society and accessible for the majority of the population in order to have meaning and to ensure their legitimacy. For this, local ownership of the reform agenda across a range of stake-holders is fundamental – as is well reflected in the DFID White Paper. 

On the justice sector, we should remember that the judiciary is the third branch of the state – next to the executive and legislature. As such, it is a crucial oversight body in charge of the political tasks of rights protection and judicial review of public office. This is a key point, and generally forgotten in justice sector reform narratives of the donor community which tend to focus on lower level courts as a matter of technical reform. The problem is that in fragile situations the judiciary (both high and lower courts) tends to be weak or captured by élite interests. So, while DFID’s commitment to undertaking security and justice sector reform with an emphasis on the more vulnerable groups is very commendable, the task also requires changing élite attitudes to abiding by the law, and the power structures of impunity. The matter, for instance, of how to resolve transitional justice dilemmas can be particularly challenging when trying to secure fragile peace agreements. But total impunity for past crimes can entrench past divisions and mistrust rather than enabling reconciliation.

In post-conflict situations such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, security sector reform (SSR) is part of the broader peacebuilding process, which seeks to include, in addition to  the reforms mentioned above, processes such as fighting the trafficking of weapons, combating the production and proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and securing disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). The DDR process is integral to assimilating former warring factions or militia into a professional army or integrating them into society to lead normal civilian lives. However, this process is often blighted by the fact that after a peace agreementthe lack of jobs among youth and former militia often threatens peace. In this regard, the DFID White Paper focus on the often neglected issue of investing in job creation in post-conflict settings is especially welcome.

What emerges from the DFID White Paper is a welcome and potentially groundbreaking agenda on security and justice in fragile situations. The ‘what’ is ambitious; the challenge lies in developing the ‘how’ to ensure effective engagement with complex realities on the ground.  This requires harmonising diverse development and foreign policy agendas, which are not always easy to reconcile. It also requires coordinating a variety of global actors among whom there is no shared understanding of either the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ in the security and justice nexus.

ODI is going to explore these challenges in a series of meetings on fragile situations in the autumn - an opener to the series was held recently at ODI.