Research Paper Security Studies

Slipping Through the Cracks: Development of Police Function in Post-Conflict States

by Jonathan Powers


Recent research has demonstrated that cessation of hostilities in civil conflicts has at best a limited impact on Rule of Law (ROL) improvements in the medium term, and that pre-conflict ROL indicators are the best predictors of post-conflict ROL status.[1] This analysis suggests that post-conflict ROL programs generally fail in strengthening the rule of law in post-conflict states. The purpose of this paper is to analyze one potential contributing factor to failed ROL programs: the inability to develop a credible and efficient police function in a post-conflict state. Additionally, this paper will argue that the frequent treatment of police reform as an element of Security Sector Reform (SSR) by donors, often focusing on the need for traditional security over the need for human security, may be a causal factor in the lack of the development of police functions in many post-conflict states.

Donor coordination issues, such as conflicting objectives among major intervening nations, have long plagued SSR and ROL development in post-conflict states and have led to misaligned strategies, weak institutions, and counterproductive results. This paper will examine the issue of donor coordination in SSR and ROL development, with a specific focus on the creation of credible and competent police functions via three qualitative case studies (Afghanistan, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone). Donor approaches to SSR and ROL, along with the unique role of police forces in a post-conflict state, have left policing functions (although not necessarily police forces) highly underdeveloped.   The paper will begin with a brief review of SSR and ROL concepts, again with a focus on police functions and forces, and the overall role they play in post-conflict transitions. Next, this paper discusses the many donor coordination issues impacting SSR and ROL and the strengthening of post-conflict police forces. Finally, the paper will review the three previously-mentioned cases to qualitatively analyze and demonstrate the inherent issues in establishing a credible police function with current SSR and ROL donor techniques.

Security Sector Reform, Rule of Law, & Police Forces

A cursory review of ROL and SSR concepts is necessary to highlight the unique role that police forces play in both programs, despite frequently only being handled as part of the SSR process by many donors and intervention forces. According to the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), SSR is a vital international concern and necessary for successfully transitioning out of conflict and achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.[2] Much of the academic and policy focus in SSR has shifted in recent years away from a sole focus on state security towards a more holistic concept of human security that includes establishing and maintaining the well-being of citizens, including basic safety and security as well as building trust in state institutions and the law. While military forces and intelligence services are largely designed to protect the state, theoretically only police forces are exclusively dedicated to safeguarding citizens and their rights, a critical factor in enhancing human security within a post-conflict state. The OECD handbook specifically stipulates that “police should have the primary responsibility for internal security,” although this principle becomes problematic in instances of lingering violence from an internal conflict.[3] The United Nations, which has also created a handbook for SSR implementation, has outlined the clear necessity for police forces in post-conflict states to serve separate and distinct functions from the military, a critical point of departure for successful SSR planning and implementation.[4] Police in particular serve as the most visible representatives of the government to the people. Effective police work demonstrates effective and responsive governance, an important factor in establishing government legitimacy and preventing a slide back towards open conflict.[5]

ROL development is central to many post-conflict transitions as well, as it is tied to the most basic concepts of liberal democracy often used by the United Nations. Therefore is a central requirement of most intervening forces and donor countries when supporting post-conflict peacebuilding efforts. ROL development, although not focused on state security in the traditional sense, is highly involved with the creation and maintenance of human security within a state, i.e. the establishment and protection of basic citizen rights. ROL – being governance by laws and leaders – requires an accepted legal code, judicial institutions, government oversight (checks and balances), and police forces to investigate and enforce the legal code.[6] Police forces, despite being dealt with via SSR programs by intervening forces and donors, are often the most visible element of the rule of law in the eyes of the public. This intersection of roles and responsibilities places police forces in a unique situation in post-conflict states as they are generally developed as part of SSR efforts, although classic police functions, such as enforcement and daily protection, arguably are more critical to ROL development.

Donor Coordination and Police Reform

As the pace of the United Nations (UN) and other intergovernmental organization’s humanitarian, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding efforts have intensified, donor coordination issues have received substantial academic attention over the past two decades . Post-conflict donor resources – such as funds, equipment, and personnel – aimed at developing liberal democracy and preventing a slide back into conflict are often heavily directed at SSR and ROL. While donors generally approach SSR as a process which explicitly includes police reform, SSR in practice remains heavily directed at security in the traditional sense of the concept, i.e. securing the government and territorial borders against enemies of the state. As a result, police reform efforts undertaken as a component of SSR programs can often be contradictory, developing police forces but not necessarily police functions.

Donor coordination issues can also disconnect reform areas that are critical to police work – such as training, equipping, facilities, recruitment policies, oversight and judicial competency – undermining efforts at police reform. Donor efforts specifically designed to develop ROL often focus on legal codes and the judiciary, with relatively minimal attention dedicated to police forces and police functions. Consequently, the development of police functions, not necessarily police forces ‘slips through the cracks’ as security-focused programs and donors develop police forces in less than ideal security situations to address traditional security concerns.Similarly, ROL-focused programs, which most critically require traditional police functions for success, have little to no involvement with police force reform and development.

Figure 1. Police Reform Coordination Issues between SSR and ROL programs & donors


Case Study Analysis

Afghanistan (2001)

In Afghanistan, a state which desperately needed both SSR and ROL development, various donors – primarily the United States and Germany – were tasked with SSR. Following widely accepted SSR procedures, these donors undertook police reform as part of their wider security reform programs. As Cornelius Friesendorf highlighted in his work on SSR in Afghanistan, donor coordination issues undermined the creation of a credible police function, creating a series of paramilitarized police forces with little to no traditional policing apparatus.[7]

The development of police forces primarily as security providers, as happened in Afghanistan, violates one of the core principles of SSR and police reform according to UN, OECD, and Organization of Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) policies, but is not an uncommon occurrence in post-conflict states.[8] In the case of Afghanistan, the United States placed primacy on the need for the traditional concept of security in their war with the Taliban despite policies and research advocating against such a heavy emphasis on security to the detriment of other facets of development. The US contribution of resources designated for police reform as part of SSR created several additional militarized security forces (Afghan National Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police , Border Police) in an effort to fill security gaps, to the long-term detriment of civilian policing, human security, and legitimacy building.[9] In stark contrast, many European donor resources in Afghanistan, small in size relative to US contributions, were used to promote traditional police work.[10] Ultimately, resources were wasted, there was confusion about the division of labor, and there was no effective police function. The ROL development programs, also severely needed in Afghanistan but largely isolated from SSR programs, had little voice in the development of police forces. As a result, ROL programs suffered with no effective and formal policing mechanisms in place to enforce the rule of law.


The UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mozambique (UNOMOZ), and later the UN Development Program, managed an SSR program in the country starting in the early 1990s at the request of several European donor states, and faced many similar problems related to police reform. The UN, acting solely as a program coordinator for SSR efforts, was forced to deal with a Mozambique which had largely demilitarized its defense forces with the support of Swiss DDR funding. As a result of a large military demobilization, the government of Mozambique, which still had critical security concerns, redirected military equipment and personnel into the police forces as part of the SSR program.[11] UNOMOZ included a small civilian police training team, but the militarization and security focus of the Mozambique police force proved proved to be too large of a scale for the team that was well beyond their operational capacity.[12]

Judicial reforms were a significant effort of the ROL program in Mozambique following the civil war. Although these reforms had many obstacles and failures in their own right, a recurring issue plaguing the legal process and ROL program was the inability of police forces to provide adequate evidence and case work to prosecute citizens charged with crimes under the reformed legal code and judicial processes, a dilemma at least partially attributable to the security focused nature of the reformed police.[13] Afghanistan and Mozambique fell into the same trap, with an overemphasis on security by donors and officials undertaking SSR programs, and ROL programs isolated from the development of police forces and functions. The end result again included heavily militarized police forces focused on security actions with little to no capacity to fill traditional police functions, ultimately contributing to a diminished rule of law.

Sierra Leone (1991)

The civil war and post-civil war environment in Sierra Leone provides an informative example of an arguably more successful police reform effort.   In Afghanistan and Mozambique, police forces were developed in name only from the beginning of SSR programs, with minimal capacity for traditional police functions as a result of the donor practice of undertaking police reform as part of SSR and a general overemphasis on traditional security development to the detriment of traditional police functions. In Sierra Leone the opportunity for this same trap existed, and, as Erlend Krogstad states in his work on Sierra Leone, the post conflict environment in Sierra Leone illustrated how “conflicting agendas of intervention such as democratization and counterinsurgency play out in the field of policing.”[14] The UK, serving as the sole donor working on police reform in post-civil war Sierra Leone, initially deviated from the common SSR approach that was used in Afghanistan and Mozambique. Instead of reforming police as part of a larger effort to improve security, the UK approached police reform as an economic development project necessary to attract foreign investments and create a suitable environment for business.[15] More closely related to ROL than SSR, the police reform program in Sierra Leone showed promise, until massive attacks by competing military groups within Sierra Leone forced British policy to adjust and reform the police forces along paramilitary lines in order to establish necessary security, to the detriment of the rule of law in the country.

The situation in Sierra Leone shows the critical nature of security reform in supporting traditional police functions. The UK, extracting police reform from the SSR framework and building a police force more aligned with ROL objectives, may well have established an enhanced rule of law in the country had the state’s lack of effective security apparatuses not forced the police into a state security role. As can be seen in this example, while the treatment of police reform as an element of security reform can undermine ROL programs, it is an impossible trap to avoid without a supportive state security apparatus that enables police forces to focus on police functions, not security work.


As has been demonstrated in the previous case studies, the treatment of police reform as an element of SSR creates inherent problems, including the tendency to overemphasize security and create paramilitary police forces. This militarization of police often contributes to insecurity, to the detriment of traditional police function development and consequently to the ROL. Donors and intervention forces, often isolated into different lines of operation (such as ROL and SSR) are unable to coordinate effectively, resulting in police forces suited to security needs and not to police functions. This brief qualitative review of three post-conflict police reform cases does not claim to conclusively demonstrate causal links between donor behavior in regards to police reform and ROL underdevelopment or failure, but rather aims to highlight the need for further empirical and analytical review of police reform in post-conflict states, specifically as it relates to SSR, ROL and donor behaviors in implementing those programs and establishing effective police functions.

[1] Stephan Haggard and Lydia Tiede, “The Rule of Law in Post Conflict Settings: The Empirical Record,” International Studies Quarterly 58 (2014): 406.

[2] OECD, The OECD DAC Handbook on Security Sector Reform: Supporting Security and Justice (OECD, 2008), 20.

[3] OECD, 22.

[4] UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Handbook on United Nations Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations (UN, 2003), 88.

[5] David H. Bayley and Robert M. Perito, The Police in War: Fighting Insurgency, Terrorism and Violent Crime (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2010), 16.

[6] Haggard, 407.

[7] Cornelius Friesendorf, “Paramilitariation and Security Sector Reform: The Afghan National Police,” International Peacekeeping 18, no. 1 (2011): 80.

[8] Ibid, 80.

[9] Robert M. Perito, “Afghanistan’s Police: The Weak Link in Security Sector Reform,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report (2009): 4.

[10] Friesendorf, 83.

[11] Mark Malan, “Peacebuilding in Southern Africa: Police Reform in Mozambique and South Africa,” International Peacekeeping 6, no. 4 (2007): 175.

[12] Anicia Lala and Laudemiro Francisco, “The Difficulties of Donor Coordination: Police and Judicial Reform in Mozambique,” Civil Wars 8, no. 2 (2006): 166.

[13] Lala, 171.

[14] Erlend Groner Krogstad, “Security, Development and Force: Revisiting Police Reform in Sierra Leone,” African Affairs 111, no. 443 (2012): 262.

[15] Joseph P. Chris Charley and Freida Ibiduni M’Cormack, “A Force for Good? Police Reform in Post Conflict Sierra Leone,” Institute of Development Bulletin 43, no. 4 (2012): 51.


Bayley, David H. and Robert M. Perito. The Police in War: Fighting Insurgency, Terrorism and Violent Crime. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2010.

Charley, Joseph P. Chris and Freida Ibiduni M’Cormack. “A Force for Good? Police Reform in Post Conflict Sierra Leone.” Institute of Development Bulletin 43, no. 4 (2012).

Friesendorf, Cornelius. “Paramilitariation and Security Sector Reform: The Afghan National Police.” International Peacekeeping 18, no. 1 (2011).

Haggard, Stephan and Lydia Tiede. “The Rule of Law in Post Conflict Settings: The Empirical Record.” International Studies Quarterly 58 (2014).

Krogstad, Erlend Groner. “Security, Development and Force: Revisiting Police Reform in Sierra Leone.” African Affairs 111, no. 443 (2012).

Lala, Anicia and Laudemiro Francisco. “The Difficulties of Donor Coordination: Police and Judicial Reform in Mozambique.” Civil Wars 8, no. 2 (2006).

Malan, Mark. “Peacebuilding in Southern Africa: Police Reform in Mozambique and South Africa.” International Peacekeeping 6, no. 4 (2007).

OECD. The OECD DAC Handbook on Security Sector Reform: Supporting Security and Justice (OECD, 2008).

Perito, Robert M. “Afghanistan’s Police: The Weak Link in Security Sector Reform.” US Institute of Peace Special Report (2009).

UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Handbook on United Nations Multidimensional Peacekeeping Operations (UN, 2003).

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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