The relationship between transitional justice and security system – or sector – reform (SSR)1 is understudied, yet
both contribute to state-building, democratisation and peacebuilding in countries with a legacy of massive human
rights abuse. The security system is fundamental in any democracy for protecting the citizens' rights. Yet in postconflict
environments it usually comprises members of the police, military, secret police, intelligence agencies,
armed rebel groups and militia – the groups which are often the most responsible for serious and systemic
human rights violations during conflict. Reforming the system to ensure security agents become protectors of
the population and the rule of law is therefore of the utmost urgency, but the political and security context may
pose serious challenges to reform.
Reforming abusive institutions is in and of itself an important component of transitional justice, and it should be
accompanied by and be coherent with other transitional justice approaches, such as prosecutions, truth-seeking,
and reparations for victims. A justice-sensitive approach to institutional reform recognises that institutions (as well
as individuals) provide an enabling environment and bear significant responsibility for massive violations of human
rights. Justice-sensitive SSR adds value to broader SSR programmes as it aims to prevent recurrence and repetition
of violations by transforming abusive institutions and instilling accountability for past abuses. It will, therefore, form
an important part of broader SSR programmes designed to increase the effectiveness of an institution. It puts a
particular emphasis on increasing the integrity, accountability and legitimacy of institutions through reform, and on
transforming the institution's role in society and its relationship with the population. Empowering citizens – particularly
victims and other marginalised groups – is a key component and aims to build civic trust of the population in the
institutions, transforming victims into citizens whose rights are known, protected and enforced, and who hold public
institutions to account.
This paper draws on research in four very different environments: Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC) and Timor-Leste. Although effective SSR is highly context-specific, this paper argues that the
EU could improve the substance of its SSR programming and implementation by drawing on lessons from these
four case studies.
The main recommendations are that:
• SSR should be seen as part of a broader state-building approach. Emphasis should be put on ensuring
coherence between SSR and other transitional justice approaches. SSR projects should consider the
whole of the security system, including relevant ministries and the justice system, as well as disarmament,
demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) processes.
• Perpetration of crime, including sexual violence, by security agents must be addressed with highest priority.
The EU should encourage the prosecution of at least the most serious abusers, preferably through the
• The EU should support a justice-sensitive approach, ensuring that accountability for human rights violations is at
the heart of SSR programmes. This will include the design and implementation of vetting processes to remove
human rights violators and other abusers from the security system. But removing abusive officers is insufficient
in itself: internal disciplinary mechanisms and effective civilian oversight are necessary for sustainable reform.
• Citizens must be empowered to hold public institutions to account. Creating or restoring civic trust in the
institutions is indispensable for sustainable reform.
At the operational level, the following recommendations could improve implementation of SSR programming:
• Programme design must be context-specific and informed by best practice and lessons learnt. It should be
based on recognition that reforming the security system in a post-conflict environment is both political and
technical, and demands a long-term strategy that is flexible enough to adapt to the changing environment.
Commitment should be long term and response should be rapid.
• The national government should drive the SSR process and coordinate programmes, but the EU (and other
actors) must insist on principles such as accountability.
• The EU should endeavour to improve coordination between international actors, and especially between
the European institutions and Member State interventions. It should seek to overcome challenges caused
by the different competencies of the European institutions (a particular concern is the relationship between
the European Commission's rule-of-law competences and the EU's engagements in SSR through European
Security and Defence Policy or ESDP missions). It should facilitate exchanges between the national
government and regional partners where relevant.
• The quality of programming could be improved by the rigorous screening and selection of international staff.
They should be trained in transitional justice approaches, and should have an adequate mission length.
Security personnel and institutional reform specialists from former regimes or from regional partners may
be more appropriate mentors than Europeans and North Americans. All programmes should be evaluated
with the participation of civil society actors. They should be gender-sensitive and should ensure that different
ethnic groups are equitably represented.
Keywords: Transitional justice, justice-sensitive SSR, European Union, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Burundi.