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Reforming Security

Written by James Cohen on Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Often Security Sector Reform (SSR) is felt to be too politically sensitive to address. James Cohen explores whether SSR can be effective if efforts are not made to tackle corruption.


Often Security Sector Reform (SSR) is felt to be too politically sensitive to address. James Cohen explores whether SSR can be effective if efforts are not made to tackle corruption.

Strikingly, many times transparency and anti-corruption can end up being avoided when undertaking security sector reform (SSR). Doing so is counterproductive. It all comes down to yet another example of “I’ll do it this afternoon”: There is an important task to be done but we’ll do it when we feel more comfortable, “when conditions are right”. Given that the objectives of security sector reform are often described as achieving effectiveness and accountability why is it that transparency and anti-corruption are so often left behind in an SSR process?

The truth is that addressing corruption in an SSR process is not easy. It is in fact nuanced, political, and long-term work; however, it is also necessary. And it can be done, despite the challenges it involves.

First, defence and security institutions around the world are used to some degree of secrecy in their operations, under the guise of security interests. This is understandable and even up to a certain level necessary. But what should be the threshold? Countries which have a long tradition of democratic institutions and values might debate with civil oversight authorities over relative degrees of transparency, but the defence and security sectors of former authoritarian regimes will take some convincing that their budgets and procurement choices should be scrutinised by civilians.

The second challenge is that the politics of tackling corruption can act as a red flag, warning reform actors to avoid the problem. Corruption allows individuals to unfairly achieve economic gains, and to wield power through patronage and favouritism in distributing public goods.

Even where the rule of law is weak, the public will know who gained favours unfairly. Thus, by addressing corruption, not only are the personal interests and networks of individuals disrupted, there is also an underlying concern of these corrupt individuals being caught and prosecuted. Addressing corruption in the defence and security sectors is especially hazardous, as the effects of not addressing it properly, may lead to violent reprisal and state destabilisation, such as a prominent corrupt general who would mobilise his loyal troops with bribes to stir political violence rather than face prosecution.

These challenges are not to be underestimated, and should be weighed carefully when beginning an SSR process. If oversight by parliamentarians and national auditors offices are improved, this will naturally place scrutiny on the approximately $1.7 trillion spent globally in the defence sector every year. If codes of conduct are improved and better implemented, and human resource management strengthened, this will naturally create hurdles to appointments being made as forms of patronage, or staff lists being stuffed with fake names or ‘ghost soldiers’ whose paychecks are then pocketed.

The full version of this article can be found at Open Security

Find out more about our work on defence and security

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James Cohen

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