Protecting the People: Public Security Choices after Civil Wars

Article excerpt

Analysts of civil war settlements have devoted significant attention to how the security of warring parties can be enhanced to reduce their mutual vulnerabilities and foster peace. Less work has been done, however, on another serious challenge of postwar settings: the security of the general population. Once safe from the crossfire of warring armies, civilians often face new threats from violent criminals, excombatants, rioters, vigilantes, or members of other ethnic groups with whom they are to cohabit under a peace agreement. In the aftermath of virtually all the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s, civilians perceived greater insecurity, often as a result of documented increases in violent crime. Ironically, in places like El Salvador and South Africa, civilians faced greater risk of violent death or serious injury after the end of the conflict than during it. [1] Even in cases where the end of civil wars has incontrovertibly reduced the dangers to civilians, postwar crime waves have been common, as have civil disturbances of various kinds.

The postwar public security situation is not entirely bleak: some aspects of peace settlements foster perceived and real improvements for the security of the general population. These include enhanced human rights protections, punishment for past human rights violations, and provisions to disarm combatants and civilians after wars. As compared to these various measures, reform of security institutions may have somewhat less impact on societies like Rwanda, where large portions of the populace are implicated in ethnic hatred and violence.

Nevertheless, security reforms remain one of the most important mechanisms for preventing political violence and common crime in many postwar settings. As police scholar David Bayley puts it, "The police are to government as the edge is to the knife." [2] Where police are repressive or politically biased, formal democratic rules and equality before the law can mean little in practice. Where the police are dominated by one ethnic group, members of excluded groups will likely turn to alternative, ethnically based mechanisms to provide security. And where no public security provisions are made, organized crime can assume such proportions as to produce corrupt mafia states, possibly with the complicity of international actors. Conversely, police who are effective in protecting individuals from criminal threats, who respect individuals' rights, and who protect vulnerable groups regardless of ethnicity or political orientation can create a positive climate even when broader political arrangements are uncertain or less than democratic. [3]

Despite the myriad dangers for public security after conflict, relatively few civil war settlements explicitly set forth a road map for restructuring security forces in ways that reorient public safety toward protecting citizens rather than the regime. Of eighteen recent cases, minimal police reforms were included in twelve agreements (see Table 1). In most of these cases, few specifics were stipulated beyond the inclusion of former enemies into police forces and brief commitments to human rights standards and professionalization. The general neglect of public security provisions in peace accords reflects the logic of peacemaking; the parties, and outside mediators, tend to focus on the post-settlement security of the civil war adversaries themselves, since this is what will make or break a peace process in the short run. Indeed, inattention to public security issues has seldom, if ever, caused renewed civil war. It has, however, contributed to extreme hardships and undermined longer-term prospects for both peace and democracy.

Most civil war peace accords in the post-Cold War period have depended to some extent on liberal political institutions, including elections with at least two competing parties, constitutional systems with checks and balances, and minimum political and civic rights. …