On the release of the report The Democratic Republic of Congo: Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform, I spoke to Marta Martinelli, a senior policy officer on Africa for the Open Society Foundations, on what the “security sector” actually looks like for people on the ground in the DRC, why these changes need to happen and what others are doing to either help or hinder this process.
What does the “security sector” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mean to people who live inside and outside the country?
The Congolese population continues to suffer at the hands of men with guns. Much of this suffering stems from a security sector—at its most basic level the army and police—that terrorizes rather than protects the population.
There are 1.7 million internally displaced people in the country that have been driven from their homes for fear of armed groups. Nearly half a million people are refugees outside the country. Children are still being used in support of armed groups including the army. Congolese people believe that the second most common source of insecurity for them is the Congolese army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo).
A properly conducted security sector reform that ensured well-trained, well-fed and regularly paid security forces would mean a security sector at the service of the population and the country. This makes the difference between being able to go and fetch wood safely or walk to school undisturbed as opposed to being raped, harassed or forced to do labor tasks by stranded soldiers on your way.
The current role of the security services in improper resource exploitation causes great revenue losses for the state as well. Not only does it restrict the government’s capacity to canvass its own resources and the people’s ability to benefit from their national wealth, but international industry also loses part of the trade in minerals to the shadow economy.
Effective security sector reform can end this humanitarian crisis, prevent human rights abuses but also break the cycle that links natural resources and conflict. The ensuing stability provides an environment more conducive to investment and growth.
Just how important is security sector reform in addressing some of the bigger issues in the DRC?
There is no bigger issue. The DRC will never extricate itself from its current situation until the army, the courts, the police, are reformed and the pervasive culture of impunity addressed. Clearly development, education, health services, infrastructure are all important in their own right, but any advancement in these areas is threatened by lack of progress in reforming the governance of the security sector.
The international community has been trying to address security sector reform in the DRC for a while now; have they achieved anything?
The point to remember here is that none of the international community’s efforts are sustainable or capable of producing systemic change unless the Congolese government demonstrates a full engagement and ownership of security sector reform initiatives. Until now, security sector reform in DRC has been mostly initiated and implemented by international partners with little governmental participation and even less leadership. International efforts must be coordinated and directed by a clear Congolese vision of security and of the security forces it wants to be served by.
Though some international efforts have yielded positive results, there remains a lot more to do. For example, the US, Belgian and South African trained battalions have proved their worth; European efforts to address structural problems in the army (such as the chain of payment, human resources and administration issues) have also had some impact. The training of police units by the EU, Belgium, France, UNPOL (the UN Police) and others has proved successful in light of the generally positive assessment of the police behavior during the recent elections in November 2011. However, without a deeper engagement on the part of the government, international efforts risk being only cosmetic with little impact on the institutional issues in need of reform.
The release of the report Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform coincides with renewed activity from international actors on reform; what’s underway and is it significant?
This report reminds the international community that not all routes have been exhausted yet and that reform of the army is more important than ever; particularly for a regime that is more fragile and less legitimate after troubled elections in November. There are some timid signs that the Congolese government might be searching for increased legitimacy in the eyes of the international community by showing some more openness and flexibility. It is a tiny window of opportunity to exert political pressure, reframe the relationship with DRC in terms of jointly identifying clear benchmarks for progress and set up a national coordinating platform for security sector reform. Part of this equally means fighting impunity within the army by tackling at least the most egregious criminals and deciding adequate measures in case of lack of progress.
Security sector reform is fundamental: the price in human suffering for international disengagement is simply too high to be tolerable and is borne fully by the Congolese people.
Who has the power to make this happen?
The Congolese President, the government and the Ministry of Defense in collaboration with the DRC Chief of Staff, as well as the international donor community. Civil society and oversight bodies can help it last.