Happy fifth birthday to the EU’s Joint Communication on Security Sector Reform

By Megan Ferrando

The 5th of July marks the five-year anniversary of the European Union’s Joint Communication on Elements for an EU-wide strategic framework to support security sector reform (or Joint Communication on SSR). In the context of an EU that is seeking to increase its engagement with security and military actors, including in situations of conflict and fragility, it is important to revisit some elements of the Joint Communication on SSR. As relevant today as it was five years ago, this document deserves particular appreciation for its focus on human security, civil society engagement, and ‘do no harm’.

A short refresher on the Joint Communication on SSR:

  • The Joint Communication was published by the European Commission and High Representative in July 2016 to help the EU better promote and support its partners’ efforts in making their security sectors more effective, legitimate and sustainable.
  • It represents a milestone in that SSR is understood as more people-centred, more context-specific, and more nationally-owned. The Strategic Framework also applies to all EU actors and instruments, ranging from European Commission programming to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions.
  • The Joint Communication was followed by Council Conclusions in November 2016, through which Member States endorsed these commitments.

What strong points to retain from the Joint Communication?

  • A framework that puts humans at the centre of security sector reform: By stating that “the first objective of a national security system must be to ensure the security of individuals, as perceived and experienced by them”, the EU establishes human security as one of the key responsibilities of security sectors. In this context, SSR should “address the specific security needs of women, minors, the elderly and minorities” and ensure that reform efforts are gender-sensitive.
  • An emphasis on engaging with diverse, local civil society: As the Joint Communication notes, “consulting and involving civil society should be standard practice in the development and monitoring of security and justice policy and activities.” The EU therefore envisages a key role for civil society organisations in SSR, as actors who co-own SSR processes and outcomes, and who hold their country’s security and justice institutions to account. Their active involvement is essential to implementing inclusive, nationally-owned and accepted strategies.
  • A commitment to mitigating negative unintended consequences: Through the Joint Communication, the EU acknowledges the inherently political nature of any type of security sector support carried out by EU actors, including CSDP missions, rightfully calling for a ‘do no harm’ approach to avoid unintended negative impacts on conflict dynamics. It warns that mitigating measures should systematically be part of SSR designs in order to avoid, for instance, that “security actors supported by the EU [might] act in a biased, discriminatory or abusive way towards the population” or that “assets [might] fall into the wrong hands”.

Whilst the EU continues to shape its common foreign, security and defence ambitions, it should ensure that its activities strictly follow the principles and objectives it has committed to regarding engagement with the security sectors of partner countries. Examples of ad hoc application of these principles can be identified within some EU programmes and CSDP activities, but much needs to be improved in order to make this application systematic. SSR processes can only be effective and sustainable if they put human security at their core, are carried out by accountable institutions, and are owned by populations in all their diversity.

In 2016, the Joint Communication affirmed that “the overall performance of this strategic framework [would] be evaluated within five years’ time”. We look forward to this process and hope it will further promote this very useful policy document among EU officials and Member States.

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