2.2. Negotiating Security Sector Reform in Contexts of Democratic Transition

Chair: Ms Fairlie Chappuis

Panellists: Dr Simon Mason, Mr Jeremy Brickhill, Dr Heiner Hänggi

Rapporteur: Mr Gideon Chew, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is a controversial field because it is a fundamentally political process that can sometimes conflict with other political agendas. For this reason the exchange of views to build a shared understanding or reform is useful for making progress on SSR where it would otherwise encounter political resistance. Yet the such forms of ‘useful talk’—such as dialogue, negotiation, mediation and facilitation—remain undervalued in SSR programming. This panel examined several examples of SSR in practice where forms of useful talk created political will for reform.

What does experience of SSR in practice have to teach us about the role of dialogue, negotiation and mediation in overcoming political obstacles to reform?

The panel opened by clarifying the various uses of technical terms that can help build political will for reform:

  • Dialogue – discussion that entails no demands or obligations. Dialogue has the potential to build trust between actors, but it also requires a degree of trust.
  • Negotiation – the process of coming to a compromise between differing agendas.
  • Mediation – a process similar to negotiation, but with the involvement of a third party to facilitate reaching an agreement.
  • Facilitation – a process of assisted dialogue where a third party guides discussion and provides technical inputs. 

Dialogue was used as an umbrella term to refer to all three of these distinct forms of useful ‘talk’.

The panel agreed that dialogue benefits SSR by developing a better understanding of SSR among all stakeholders. In Cambodia, the work of a think tank led to the realisation that capacity-building was vital for the country. Among other things, SSR literature is currently being translated into the local language, and there is now a widened political space where it is acceptable to discuss SSR to a greater extent than before.
Another benefit of dialogue is that it can raise awareness of SSR among state institutions and civil society groups. For example, in the Philippines, a facilitated dialogue helped put SSR on the agenda of the incoming government in 2010 and subsequently influenced a number of its policies. The SSR process was also able to spark a grassroots movement, showing how dialogue can build political will for reform.
Nonetheless, dialogue alone cannot advance SSR and conflicting agendas or political movements can still prevent progress. This was seen in Thailand in 2009-2014, when a multi-stakeholder dialogue process produced proposals to reform the police and military, that were halted due to the coup d’état in 2014. At the same time, progress made through this process could still provide a new basis for reform if the political situation improves.

Why are dialogue, negotiation and mediation undervalued in programmatic approaches to SSR?

The panel identified several obstacles to dialogue, negotiation and mediation: Firstly, where SSR processes have a tight schedule to follow, dialogue may be given a lower priority should it be seen to be a slow and uncertain process. Secondly, power asymmetries may mean that some conflict parties lack an incentive to negotiate. Thirdly, SSR may carry negative connotations linked to the specific political context. 

How can SSR processes make better use of dialogue, negotiation and mediation to advance democratic transitions and peace processes?

A key way to facilitate dialogue is to build trust. This can be done by ensuring that SSR processes are transparent, and by creating a sense of familiarity by fostering informal dialogue before more formal meetings take place. Where contentious issues exist, another way to maintain friendly relations is to address the less contentious matters first, in order to establish a productive working relationship and demonstrate the value of SSR.

Dialogue must also be inclusive. A central problem in the past was that negotiations stopped when a peace agreement was signed, which meant that only the actors relevant to the conflict were accounted for and not civil society or public interests more generally. If possible, all actors should be included in the negotiation table right from the start. Inclusive dialogue processes can be facilitated through the influence of key figures, and tend to be particularly effective when the process is a local-driven one. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the SSR agenda was supported by the presence of influential members of society urging the government to take action on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe.

Overall the panel agreed that dialogue in all its different forms offers a rich resource to inform SSR programming, and one that merits more systematic future investigation.