Increasing the momentum for police in African-led peacekeeping operations


African-led peace support operations (PSOs) are increasingly deployed to missions in high-risk environments, which often require combat activities.

These are also contexts where the United Nations (UN) will not enter until a peace agreement has been signed and the peace process has reached critical mass – that is, when there is peace to keep.

In the context of creating stronger continental mechanisms that can increase the African Union (AU)’s capacity to support countries affected by conflict, AU PSOs are characterised by deployment to unstable environments, often acting as ‘first responders’.

A new paper by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), from Marina Caparini and Ann Livingstone, aims to identify African approaches and perspectives relevant to the police component of African-led PSOs. They highlight current developments in terms of the AU’s approaches to police in its PSOs, focusing on the increased role that police leadership can play in countries facing conflict situations. According to the authors, more clarity is needed in terms of the AU’s roles and responsibilities at all levels of its policing efforts, particularly in defining a common understanding of command roles relating to structures, functions and activities.

Police commissioners often receive minimal training and preparation before deployment

With an increase in robust, African-led PSOs, the policing components and PSO frameworks continue to evolve. This results in challenges for police participation in decision-making, particularly in terms of the roles, responsibilities, strategies and deployment of police in PSOs. Caparini and Livingstone say that police in PSOs serve the essential goal of restoring and strengthening law enforcement and public safety and security, within the framework of the rule of law.

Police components in African-led PSOs have generally fulfilled two types of roles in a mission environment. Formed police units are cohesive and robust armed mobile police units that provide public order management, and protect AU personnel and facilities. They also support host-state police operations that may involve a high level of risk. Individual police officers, on the other hand, provide support for the reform, restructuring and rebuilding of host-state police. These distinct functions are, however, often not well understood by other components of the PSO.

This process is important for several reasons, and is critical in the AU’s development of an effective African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). While the intervention mechanism that is being created within the APSA, namely the African Standby Force (ASF), is intended to be a multidisciplinary body with military, police and civilian components, it is clear that the military component still dominates the planning structures and processes.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a senior researcher at the ISS in Addis Ababa, said in a 2010 paper that the creation of APSA has not only imposed an obligation to intervene against serious crimes, it also ‘created a legal basis for intervention.’ However, due to the volatility of the operational environments to which the AU deploys, the police component is urging for enhanced approaches to be harmonised.

The police was not incorporated in the initial design of the ASF, and was not integrated into the APSA until 2008. This meant that the military was the dominant voice in the creation of the APSA, and subsequently also the ASF. A central question is how the AU expects to promote multidimensionality, as envisaged in its policy frameworks, while its military structure does not allow for the equal development of the police and civilian components.

As a result, the AU is currently developing new approaches to enhance the role of police, particularly through its Police Strategic Support Group (PSSG). This would assist in addressing the police-related gaps in policy, doctrine and training that might slow down the mobilisation and deployment of AU operations.

The AU police component is working hard to develop policies, guidelines and structures

The need for a clear, credible and achievable mandate has proven to be equally relevant for both African-led PSOs and UN peacekeeping operations. Institutional dynamics at the highest political decision-making level of the AU, regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs) will also likely affect how mandates are defined, and how quickly a PSO is deployed. The PSSG is one of the mechanisms that can assist in this regard.

In Africa, police planning elements are less developed and have fewer planning experts than the UN or other regional organisations, such as the European Union. There are also differences between the RECs, some of which are more institutionally developed, or have more robust planning and management capacities than others. In a mission environment, this may be reflected at the operational level by inadequate experience among police of in-mission planning.

The challenges facing police commissioners at the operational level of AU missions are substantial, and there is an opportunity to improve understanding of the needs in this particular area. Police commissioners often receive minimal training and preparation before deployment. Not all police commissioners have the required managerial background or experience in strategic planning, which is an essential skill for commanding the police component in a PSO.

African countries that contribute police further represent a mix of national policing systems, some of which include gendarmerie-type police with military status, while others only have a civilian police tradition. As such, the AU or REC’s decisions regarding the specific type of police capacity required for a mission is crucial.

The new ISS paper says that the current ASF approach has been described as favouring a ‘fire brigade’ type of policing, with emphasis on the use of force, to stabilise volatile situations – as opposed to serious engagement in the medium- to long-term development of the police force of the host state as a way of empowering them to assume their statutory functions. Stabilisation, however, requires various police competencies, namely a force that is capable of mentoring and advising the host state on restructuring requirements for its police and rule-of-law institutions.

André Roux, a senior researcher at the ISS, has noted the constant challenges facing peacekeeping police officers deployed at local levels to train, mentor and advise local police. Often officers receive very little, if any, practical or applicable training and materials for their specific environment and levels of deployment. The AU is formalising its approaches to policing and developing relevant policies, in the process aligning closely with the UN approach to the role of the police in peace operations.

The current approach has been described as a ‘fire brigade’ type of policing

The availability of adequate equipment and logistics is a major challenge for the police component of AU missions, particularly in the case of formed police units, which are supposed to be self-sustaining but are often deployed without adequate equipment or logistical capabilities. To be more effective, the AU police should be deployed with proper equipment to perform capacity-building and development tasks, investigative tasks and executive policing tasks.

As AU forces tend to deploy to higher risk environments than UN forces, and often do not have adequate support systems in place before deploying, a key concern is the sustainability of contingents. A second major challenge is the use of individual police officers to focus on mentoring, training and advising local police on rule of law and other issues.

The AU impressively demonstrates ongoing efforts to create the instruments needed for decision-making while deployment to robust, high-risk environments continues. The AU police component, including through the role of PSSG, is working hard to develop necessary policing policies, guidelines and structures, and to secure greater police representation in key decision-making and planning bodies for PSOs.

With the need to ensure adequately trained and equipped capabilities, there is a push to harmonise the approaches of the AU, RECs and RMs and member states in terms of their police components. However, while the shift from non-intervention to non-indifference indicates significant change on the continent, there is not yet consensus or agreement on the way forward.

It is important for the process to continue so that the objectives of harmonised training standards, equipping and deploying uniformed personnel in a timely manner are met and enable the AU to be more a effective and efficient peacekeeping organisation.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

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