Why the AU needs to get policing right

Bringing Africa's police chiefs on board will help the AU in overcoming the peace and security challenges.

While the role of police in peace support operations used to be limited to tasks of monitoring and observing, it has changed to encompass complex and substantive roles. These include helping to rebuild the capacity of police and broader law enforcement institutions that have suffered the consequences of violent conflict.

Usually in the aftermath of conflict, these institutions are critical in rebuilding public confidence in the rule of law, which has typically been either diminished by the conflict or, in some cases, totally destroyed. Following the Brahimi Report (2000), police roles were viewed in the wider context of the rule of law, protection of civilians and human rights. New areas of focus include emerging threats such as terrorism, organised transnational crime and corruption.

Resolution 2185 (2014) – the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) first-ever resolution on police operations – stressed the invaluable contribution of the police in peacekeeping, post-conflict peacebuilding, security, the rule of law and creating a solid foundation for development. The relationship between the host state counterparts and the police experts who work in peace support operations relies on successful interaction between multiple stakeholders, long-term investment in police work, as well as a strong relationship with the host government.

This was part of the global trend to move beyond military dominance in peacekeeping

To allow for police work that caters to the dynamic, complex environment outlined above, the African Union (AU) introduced a multi-dimensional approach to its peace and security interventions on the continent. This new approach was laid out in the Common African Defence and Security Policy (2004). The focus was to include the three primary components of peace support operations and peacebuilding – namely civilians, the military and the police – at all levels of strategic, operational and tactical analysis, planning and implementation.

This represented a significant change, and was part of the global trend to move beyond military dominance in peacekeeping by incorporating civilian and police actors from the onset of conflict, given the critical role they play in longer-term peacebuilding. Globally, it was increasingly evident that the role of police and law enforcement was vital if chances of a return to conflict were to be minimised.

The UN is the most visible actor in international peacekeeping, but it is useful to note that there have been significant African contributions in peacekeeping over the last 20 years. Among the top 10 police contributing countries are Senegal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Egypt and Togo. In this initial uptick of African contributions to international peacekeeping, regional or sub-regional actors initiated 31 peace support operations. This reflects that they were more suited to respond to the issues on the ground, and were more likely to have a long-term commitment.

Getting policing right is at the heart of a successful peace support operation

With its establishment in 2002, the AU began making a number of institutional changes. The Protocol of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) defines the components of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). The AU Commission, the Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System, the African Standby Force (ASF) and the Peace Fund are the pillars, while the Military Staff Committee and the five regional mechanisms (RMs), or the regional economic communities (RECs), are additional components. However, these primary documents did not include the police at the policy level of the APSA.

Similarly, the police components of the REC/RMs were not represented at the decision-making level. The police component is a part of the planning element, but remains understaffed and subordinated to the military component. This gap is now being addressed, as there is no longer any question that getting policing right is at the heart of a successful peace support operation. Police experts need sophisticated tools and specialised knowledge to respond to local interpretations and practices on rule of law, justice and traditional mechanisms that can be used to support conflict resolution. The complex environments where peace support operations are mandated require an expanded range of technical skills and command structures that support the objectives of the host state in restoring the rule of law.

This will encourage coordination among the police, civilian and military components

Last year, the inauguration of the Police Strategic Support Group (PSSG) highlighted the commitment to bringing strategic police representation to the same level as that of the Military Staff Committee. At its maiden conference, a range of police experts from AU-led peace support operations focused on the structure and organisation of the AU Police, the ASF police component in the APSA, the relationship with the REC/RM planning elements and the capacities and capabilities of the regional police.

A highlight of the meeting was the attention paid to ensuring that the police have a clear role and identity. The police is focused on defining its identity and being clear about the vision, mission, codes of conduct, structure and other elements that will empower the police to be involved as decision-makers equal to their military counterparts.

In the coming months, the PSSG will engage police leadership from across the continent to work on the recently amended AU Peace Support Operations Divisions (PSOD) structure. This will ensure that the police dimension is well covered in all functional areas within the AU PSOD. The second focus area is greater clarity of roles and responsibilities in peace support operations, which will help to clearly distinguish how police differ from their military counterparts. This level will improve coordination and cooperation between these two key players.

A third focus area is the development of AU Police policy, guidelines and standard operating procedures. This is intended to harmonise approaches to policing and the rule of law, and also to develop standards for the countries and regional actors who contribute to the ASF police component.

The importance of police roles and responsibilities in peace support operations and peacebuilding is self-evident given the fundamental role of policing in creating an environment conducive to rule of law. The AU’s decision to incorporate policing on all levels of the peace and security decision-making bodies will create opportunities for police leaders to actively participate on strategic, operational and tactical levels. This will have a positive effect on the overall peace and security efforts of the AU. Integrating Africa’s police leaders at the strategic and policy level will also increase the operational effectiveness of peace operations, reducing misunderstandings and encouraging coordination among the police, civilian and military components in the field.

Meressa Kahsu, Researcher and Training Coordinator, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Addis Ababa and Ann Livingstone, ISS Senior Consultant

Related content