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Civil society action essential to effective security sector reform

The state, alone, cannot conduct effective security sector reform. Civil society actors have an important role to play as the voice of the people, overseeing the impact on youth and women, human rights, the environment – and more.

With this in mind, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya is working to raise awareness about the reform of security sector governance among civil society actors and identify areas for potential support.

To kick off, UNSMIL and the Chief of the UN Standing Capacity on Security Sector Reform in February convened a workshop in Tripoli with 12 Libyan civil society organizations to discuss challenges to security sector reform in Libya, share the UN position and brainstorm ways civil society organizations can contribute.

The role of the UN and the international community is to support – not to conduct – security sector reform, said Mpako Foaleng, Chief of the UN Standing Capacity on Security Sector Reform.

“National ownership means more than government ownership – although both are intertwined,” Foaleng said. “It means more than ministry ownership. It means all those things plus civil society ownership.”

To ensure security institutions protect rather than oppress, according to principles of good governance, she said, they must be subject to multiple controls, including internal controls, legislative oversight, judicial review, and civil society oversight.

Civil society acts as a conduit between the government and individuals.

“Training and equipment are not reform on their own,” she said. “You can train and equip an institution to prey on the population tomorrow. Civil society must maintain dialogue with the security sector in pursuit of continuous improvement and accountability.”

Foaleng shared lessons learned from civil society organizations’ participation in security sector reform in other contexts, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, and reviewed with the activists different African governance instruments that could be used to hold security actors accountable, such as the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance and the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

The activists broke off into groups to discuss security governance challenges in Libya, key priorities for success with security sector reform, and ways civil society actors can address these challenges and priorities. Group members emphasized the need for a national vision and integration, security sector reform’s link to efforts to finalize Libya’s constitution, and the importance of the participation of women and youth.

One participant, G.S., said the women’s group she heads is already working with the security sector, organizing meetings with security actors in Tripoli to discuss disarmament and opportunities for reintegration into society.

“We are concerned about the security of our communities,” she said. “When there is fighting, people have to abandon their homes. Fighters break into houses. Streets aren’t safe. All these things impact women and their health.”

G.S. said some fighters have given up their guns after interactions with her civil society organization. But there are many challenges.

Libya’s civil society sector is young and civil society actors need more training to understand their role in security sector reform, she said.

Legal protections for civil society actors in Libya are weak, so they must tread carefully, said Z.M., a human rights activist working in Libya’s South. Many fear retaliatory action from armed groups when documenting misdeeds.

“It is difficult to convince victims to go public and talk about the abuses they were subject to,” Z.M. said.

UNSMIL’s initiative to boost civil society involvement in security sector governance is important, she said, to build the nascent sector and help ensure a human-rights-based approach.

At the end of the workshop, the civil society organizations agreed to organize themselves into an alliance to promote a concerted approached to civilian oversight in the security sector.

UNSMIL will follow up with technical support for civil society organizations as needed.

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