Taking the next step: Security Sector Reform in Libya

Can the experience of the western Balkans help Libya in its transition? Some best practice could be adapted to the local context.

Jelena Petrovic Gonca Noyan Benedetta Berti Hristiana Grozdanova
27 March 2012

One year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is undergoing profound transformation, leaving the international community saddled with a period of rapid transition similar to the one that occurred in Europe in the nineties.

One of the biggest challenges ahead for all these countries in transition will certainly be how to implement successful security sector reform (SSR). In turn, this is a particularly difficult task in environments that are both post-authoritarian and post-conflict. Therefore, it is important for international actors involved in these processes to draw lessons from similar experiences.

The challenge most closely matching the complexities of the MENA region is what took place in the western Balkans (WB), i.e. countries occupying the territory of former communist Yugoslavia that was violently dissolved in the nineties. All western Balkan countries are post-authoritarian states that have experienced some degree of internal violence. Each of them has also witnessed heavy international involvement, with NATO engagement ranging from military interventions to peacekeeping operations and extensive support given to the transitional process, particularly in the area of SSR.

Lessons from the Western Balkans cannot be applied wholesale to the MENA countries since, despite some similarities, these two regions differ significantly in their geostrategic, political and cultural features. However, they can still be used as a guideline to help those international organizations that will assist the local authorities in designing SSR for their regions.  But the main lessons of SSR from the western Balkans might well be applied to the MENA country where the most extensive and pervasive security sector reforms are being implemented: post-Gaddafi Libya.

I. Disarm and demobilize

All militias and para-militias operating in the country (both on the winning as well as on the losing side) should be disarmed in order to protect the population, prevent the renewal of conflict, and create a favourable environment for reform. The western Balkans experience proves that disarming and demobilizing all armed groups involved in the military conflict is the first requirement of any successful SSR.

In the case of Libya, demobilizing all outstanding militias represents the most crucial challenge ahead for the National Transitional Council (NTC). This is especially hard as Libya is highly fragmented internally —with competing tribal loyalties taking precedence over national identity—and lacking strongly functioning central political institutions. The NTC is therefore struggling to assert authority over tribes, cities, and provinces which had basically relied on self-rule over the past four decades and which are now resisting attempts to bring about a measure of national centralized control.

It is in this sense encouraging to see that the political authority has made demobilization its priority. But, despite some initial success, the challenge ahead is still daunting as the country is plagued by both militias and internal divisions.

II. Devote special and separate attention to SSR

The early adoption of key first generation reforms concerning the police, the army, and the intelligence sector is crucial for the success of the SSR. In achieving this objective, the biggest obstacle often lies in the resistance to change shown by the old personnel - especially from the officers with high ranks within the security establishment.

Western Balkans' SSR revealed the importance of the role of international organizations in employing positive reinforcement conditionality as a prime tool for accelerating desired reforms and dealing with resistance to change. However, in prompting local SSR, international organizations must find the balance between international involvement and local ownership, paying special attention to engaging all local stakeholders (civil society above all).

In Libya, first generation SSR started with reforming the police and the armed forces (with very little information available regarding the intelligence sector), and both processes have been carried out with substantial international involvement. In order for these reforms to succeed, a number of outstanding issues need to be tackled and resolved: from enforcing national human rights standards, to ensuring central command and control, to investing in democratic civilian oversight.

Police Sector

In Serbia, SSR experience showed, that in reforming the police special attention should be devoted to 'cleaning-up' personnel, with a strong focus on establishing and applying strict rule of law and human rights standards. This proved to be difficult in the case of Serbia, as the institution was closely associated with Milosevic’s regime.  

The police force in Libya is no better off: the police forces are currently badly equipped, in a state of internal disarray, and still perceived as part of Gaddafi’s coercive apparatus. To improve the situation, the Libyan police desperately needs to be strengthened by new recruits, equipped and trained, something the NTC has been working on with the assistance of the UN Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL), which has offered both training and advisory support. The adoption of human rights and rule of law common standards is urgently needed if these reforms are to succeed.

Defence Sector

The establishment of a unified national army under central, democratic and civilian control is a prerequisite for the success of SSR. Demilitarization of civilian defence institutions (Ministry of Defence) accompanied with the downsizing and unification of the army on a state level proved to be the most important and difficult lessons learned in the western Balkans. 

Following the capitulation of the regime in Libya, the new political authority has found itself with a nearly disintegrated and badly equipped army. In addition, the NTC also faces the challenge of integrating or dissolving hundreds of parallel non-state armed groups and merging them to create a new and truly national army. As Libya continues with this monumental effort, it will be important—following the June elections for the creation of a national congress—to take concrete steps to create strong mechanisms of parliamentary oversight of the armed forces, as well as to invest in the demilitarization of the Ministry of Defence.

Intelligence Sector

Reforming the intelligence sector should be a priority, and these reforms should be both public and transparent. In addition, intelligence reforms should also support personnel clean-up, assist in limiting the participation of former informants in the secret police, for example, and other legal frameworks aimed at reforms based on transparency, as well as establishing civilian control, and democratizing the institution early on.

At the moment, very little is known about Libya’s plans for its secret services, which were the branch of Libya’s security sector most closely associated with Gaddafi. In this sense, it will be a monumental challenge to reform it, especially in terms of establishing civilian and democratic control.  

III. Craft your role carefully as an international actor 

It appears obvious that Libya has a long and daunting task ahead and that, in order to complete it successfully, it will need international assistance and support, especially in the crucial early stages of the SSR.

For this partnership to be successful, special attention has to be devoted to the framing of clear coordination guidelines that ease the complexities of establishing a constructive engagement with the international community - one that can avoid badly directed aid in certain areas and neglect in others. Regional cooperation has proved particularly valuable for SSR efforts.

Second, it is of particular importance to find a balance between international involvement and local ownership. While local ownership may not be expected during the stabilization phase, still there should be a clear focus on empowering and involving local actors.  For example, in the case of Kosovo, the international organizations involved were reluctant to transfer responsibility to local actors, fearing their incompetence. However, by not involving them from the outset in order to gradually build local capacity and allow for an eventual handover of responsibility, SSR efforts were set at risk.

IV. Design and implement reforms while keeping in mind the impact of reforms on the population

Awareness of the 'human factor' is of crucial importance for the sustainability of SSR. International organizations should assess the impact of the reforms on locals and propose programmes to compensate for any likely negative impact on their lives. For instance, downsizing the armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina was met with resistance as it affected not only ex-soldiers but also their families. What's more, demobilized and unemployed soldiers represented a potential security concern. To prevent this, the international community provided investment for programmes for requalification of demobilized military personnel.

In Libya, awareness of the human factor will be crucial in facing the toughest challenge ahead for the NTC: demobilizing and integrating militias. In fact, this process needs to be accomplished by openly involving all the relevant stakeholders, as well as by investing in the reintegration of former fighters, with a strong focus on successful reintegration in civilian life

Best practices?

In sum, although very different in planning and implementing security sector reforms, the experiences from the western Balkans do point out to a number of best-practices in SSR and, as such they should be taken into consideration when addressing how post-authoritarian, post-conflict nations—like Libya—should begin their own internal reforms and institution-building process. Internalizing these lessons also represents a promising step towards helping international organizations like NATO to avoid repeating previous mistakes in maintaining the sustainability of SSR.

Of course, these guidelines should be adapted to the local situation, employing context-sensitivity and cultural competence. For example, given the highly fragmented nature of Libyan society, it would be ineffective and ultimately counterproductive to push too hard towards creating a centralized system. Instead, local autonomy should be preserved, while attempting to assert a clear chain of command and ensure that national standards of conduct are followed by all local sectors of the security forces.

Benedetta, Gonca, Hristiana, and Jelena are members of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.

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