Security Sector Reform in Constitutional Transitions

Sujit Choudhry

Security sector reform (SSR) is central to the democratic transitions currently unfolding across the globe, as a diverse range of countries grapple with how to transform militias, tribal forces, and dominant military, police, and intelligence agencies into democratically controlled and accountable security services.

Because SSR is an indispensable part of a larger process of democratization, it can also have an important constitutional dimension. In our new book, Security Sector Reform in Constitutional Transitions, we challenge the consensus on how SSR is related to the larger process of constitutional transitions towards democratic rule.

On substance, the consensus holds that SSR must extract the security sector out of politics and put civil–military relations on a democratic footing, while at the same time ensuring that a new civilian authority is not able to manipulate or abuse the security sector. The consensus also holds that in the process for the peaceful transfer of power from authoritarian to democratic rule, the military should stay in its barracks and not participate in the ensuing constitutional transition, except to cede control to new civilian authorities with reasonable dispatch and without making any demands to maintain its status. However, as the case studies in our book illustrate, the relationship between SSR and constitutional transitions is much more complex than the consensus suggests.

Consider one issue, often overlooked in the large literature on constitution-building: the importance of stability to successful democratic transitions. The main components of stability are basic, street-level, public safety; a broader sense of national security, and the rule of law. Stability allows those states to restructure their political systems and to create an economic environment in which commerce and industry can flourish, and provides an opportunity for a political community to embark upon a process of healing and reconciliation after a variety of different authoritarian experiences. Perhaps more fundamentally, stability is a basic precondition for the emergence, growth, and consolidation of constitutional democracy. The ongoing civil war in Libya and Yemen illustrate that the failure to maintain security can itself threaten transitions to democracy.

Security services have an important role to play in ensuring stability and promoting conditions that are conducive to democratization. The difficulty is that in many post-authoritarian environments, the integrity of the police and intelligence agencies, on whom the task of ensuring stability falls, has been compromised by their complicity in the prior regime. The armed forces, which are frequently needed to guarantee domestic security during the transition period because the regular police lack sufficient capacity to re-establish order, are likewise, in many cases, beholden to the rulers of the ancien régime. These realities on the ground — pervasive in constitutional transitions — raise a genuine dilemma for the prevailing consensus, and suggest the need may arise to compromise with unyielding constitutional democratic principle, in the service of the long-term success of a transition to constitutional democracy.

This is but one dilemma among many. The major contribution of our book is to bring to the surface and analyze the complexities of the relationship between SSR and constitutional transitions through detailed case studies, and the dilemmas that must be openly wrestled with and resolved. Working up from concrete cases has implications for both the scholarly understanding of these phenomena, and the policy question of how countries embarking on the process of constitutional transitions should approach SSR.

Sujit Choudhry is Director of the Center for Constitutional Transitions, and an internationally recognized authority on comparative constitutional law. He has spoken in nearly three dozen countries, and has published over 100 articles, book chapters, working papers and reports.

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