Security Sector Reform and the Demand for Small Arms and Light Weapons

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 01-7


Dominick Donald
and ’Funmi Olonisakin

Dominick Donald and ’Funmi Olonisakin are Programme Officers in the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, at the United Nations.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

This briefing is based on a paper presented by the authors to the International Workshop on Small Arms Demand Reduction, Toronto, March 14-17, 2001.

Trying to control the global trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) can seem depressingly thorny. Setting aside all the usual political difficulties that accompany a business seen as a flag-bearer for often far from prosperous states, and which is often used as a deniable means of furthering state interests, the simple mechanics of control can seem unassailable. Stocks of SALW are plentiful, accessible, and cheap; they are regenerated every time armed forces re-equip; there is a substantial legitimate trade, thus undermining attempts to control the business’s shadier side; there is no shortage of willing brokers, or of established means of ensuring illicit goods reach a given customer; and the profits on any deal can be considerable. It therefore seems rash to place too much confidence in addressing the supply side of the small arms trade alone.

Yet addressing the demand for SALW can also seem a huge task. As RT Naylor has pointed out, the demand for weapons is often a surrogate for the demand for social justice, and the firearm is the capital good intended to bring about that objective; reducing demand therefore “requires addressing squarely the real causes of violent conflict, of which the most important is the prevailing maldistribution of income, wealth and ecological capital.” But this Herculean task can be broken down into more manageable ones. Principal among these is addressing demand through security sector reform.

Security sector reform (SSR) is the process of reordering state security structures – military, police, and intelligence – to better fit the threat they face and the society they serve. In most cases this involves placing those structures under accountable, ideally democratic, civilian authority. This process should, in procurement terms, reduce the likelihood of states buying arms they don’t need for threats they’ll never face. But the effect of reform on demand for SALW can go much deeper than simply ensuring small impoverished African states don’t buy the Eurofighter. The driving idea behind SSR is the reordering of sick states whose security sectors have become unaccountable parasites. Often they serve only their own sectional interests; their arbitrary power creates the conditions for conflicts they are ill-suited to deal with. In adopting a holistic approach to power without responsibility, security sector reform can go some way to achieving Naylor’s objective.

First one needs to understand how an unreconstructed security sector creates demand for SALW. (In ‘unreconstructed’ we have borrowed a term from feminist discourse usually applied to obdurately traditional-minded males unwilling to acknowledge changing times and ideas.) One way of looking at it is as a vicious circle of incompetence. Unreconstructed security sectors tend to be highly politicised, with either a substantial presence in or control over government. Yet the process of political involvement is professionally degrading and personally corrupting; time spent on business, local government, factional and inter-service in-fighting is time spent away from the security services’ core task. At the same time politicised security structures will tend to proliferate as the central authority tries to keep potential putschists weak; each structure (often, even sub-structure) will also be given its own procurement chain (with attendant possibilities for kickbacks and third-party sales) to ensure that its senior officers have a vested interest in the status quo. Service responsibilities are unlikely to be clearly demarcated, and inter-service co-operation non-existent. This therefore means that the security sector will be professionally and institutionally ill-suited to dealing with genuine threats, particularly internal ones. The culture of unaccountability that goes with politicisation, coupled with limited professional competence, means that any use of force against minor security threats is likely to be at best ham-fisted and at worst indiscriminate. This in turn will create greater insecurity. Security services and armed groups alike will thus have a greater demand for SALW. The security sector, which has the easiest (because apparently most legitimate) access to the international arms market, thus has a vested interest in the continuation of conflict and the avoidance of accountability; greater politicisation will follow as the security sector fights to protect its turf. The state is now trapped in a cycle of violence and repression that only exhaustion or political reform is likely to end.

Introducing the oxygen of accountability into the security sector is likely to break this cycle. Centralised procurement is likely to reduce the number of actors looking for, and the cost of, weapons, and if properly supervised reduce the opportunities for corruption. (It may also therefore have some effect on the provision of end-user certificates, so limiting other countries’ supply.) Increasing accountability means security structures will use their power with an awareness of the consequences of its misuse, while public anger at abuses may be tempered by knowledge that they are more likely to be addressed. There may also be a virtuous circle of professionalism; the gradual disappearance of the need for political involvement will allow security sector actors to concentrate on their relevant professions, increasing the demarcations between services and roles (for instance, removing the military from policing) and so creating a greater public confidence in the security sector – a confidence likely to be reflected (in a functioning democracy) in support for its budgetary needs. This in turn means that the security sector will be better able to do its job of providing security for the state and all its citizens, and so further reduce demand for SALW. And once small arms are removed from the equation, much of the impetus for defining oneself in terms of an ‘other’ – and thus the tendency towards deepening social divisions – also disappears.

Yet reform must go deeper than a reordering of structures. SSR also means changing perceptions of security, in the state and civil society. The closer these perceptions are, the better the prospects for effective conflict management. Security is generally held to be the provision of freedom from fear (am I safe?), anxiety (can I fulfill myself?) and hunger (can I feed my family?). Ideally, the security of the regime should rest in the security of its citizens. But in an unreconstructed state the perceptions of the security sector and the citizenry clash. Leaders of unreconstructed states care principally about perpetuating their authority, and allocate state resources accordingly; their three freedoms are best guaranteed by a ramshackle security structure. This perception filters down to senior security personnel. Lower-level members’ perceptions focus on other security agencies as competitors for the resource pot. For all these actors, the citizenry often features only as threats or prey, and the notion that they should be protected is often long-forgotten. This means that civilians’ basic security concerns are not being addressed by the state, if the state is not itself the threat. They have little confidence in the state, or its security organs; their three freedoms are best guaranteed by removing the security sector from the equation entirely, and perhaps assuming the capital (firearms) necessary to guarantee their freedoms themselves.

The gulf between these perceptions is deep and well established. If the gap cannot be narrowed then there will always remain a substantial dormant demand for small arms. The difficulty is that most of these security structures do their best to keep civil society out of their business; civilian ignorance about security matters in unreconstructed states is thus nearly total. Ignorance compounds profound suspicion, making the process of SSR even more difficult.

A genuine security threat can complicate matters even further. A reforming security sector is even less able to address threats than its unreconstructed predecessor. The whole cause of SSR may be jeopardised, as a security sector which may have acquired another schism (pro- and anti- reform) battles (perhaps with the best of motives) with itself and a weak civilian administration to determine the best approach for addressing the threat. Incomplete disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) processes, coupled with an absence of economic opportunity, create further opportunity for chaos. Successful civil control of the security sector is a function of political stability and apolitical professionalism, neither of which is likely to be present in a transitional state. It is no accident that one of the principal actors in the movement for SSR – the UK, which through its military training teams preached the gospel of civilian accountability throughout the developing world long before the term SSR was devised – benefits from almost unequalled political stability and a military which has therefore had no cause to dabble in politics for several hundred years.

Yet a threatened transitional state is by no means doomed to step back into the circle of incompetence and thus demand for SALW. To return to RT Naylor, armed conflict, particularly intra-state armed conflict (which represents up to 90 per cent of the world’s wars at present), is at root about the distribution of resources. States tend to address distribution through politics. To succeed in addressing a threat, therefore, a state must use its security structures as the means and politics as the end. A large part of unreconstructed states’ inability to resolve long-standing security threats stems from a threefold inability to offer political solutions, to tailor the security sector’s actions to other than absolutist political goals, and to achieve military victory, even over the most inconsequential of enemies. By creating stronger links between a more accountable political structure and a more responsive, competent security sector, SSR may also provide transitional states with the ability to address the threats that jeopardise the process.

But it is important to make sure that the process, once embarked on, is thoroughgoing. There is a danger that SSR can become a developmental fad, whose trappings are assumed as camouflage for old ways. By installing a civilian Minister of Defence and buying fewer tanks unreconstructed leaders can claim that they have seen the light. But SSR is part of a wider process of political reform. If the leadership will not allow broader political participation – either through decentralised government or genuine multi-party democracy – then SSR on its own is unlikely to succeed; it may simply construct a cheaper, more efficient tool of repression. Yet even here there is hope. If the gulf in security perceptions is addressed, then the chances of the soldiery seeing their interests as similar to those of the wider society increase; after all, Britain’s armed forces eschew politics in large part because they see dabbling in them as so damaging. To state the obvious, demand for small arms is a function primarily of the perception of threat. Once a state’s citizens feel they have a share in a responsive political process, and that the security apparatus is likely to stick to what it’s supposed to, genuine security – and thus limited demand – are likely to follow.

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