Last month the incumbent president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, was selected as his party’s nominee in the presidential elections to be held in late June. This would be Nkurunziza’s third term, in violation of Burundi’s peace agreement and constitution. Even though the nomination was validated by the constitutional court, it appears that this decision was obtained through threats and intimidation. While these political machinations are worrisome, the public unrest and the police response to that unrest are more worrisome as Burundi faces the worst political and violent crisis since the end of its civil war in 2005.
Earlier this week the Associated Press reported Burundi’s national police responded to protests with water cannons, tear gas, and small arms fire, leaving at least three dead and 45 wounded. This represents the latest example of Burundi’s national police acting as the enforcement arm of the ruling the party instead of providing order and ensuring respect for the laws, as their mission was laid out in the Arusha peace agreement. Late last month, six protestors were killed, Burundi’s last independent radio station was shut down, and an arrest warrant was issued for an opposition leader. A few months before that came reports of police (and army forces that typically remain neutral) conducting extrajudicial killings.
The use of police to protect the regime is not a phenomenon unique to Burundi — it happens all over the world, recently and notably in Egypt and Mexico. Policing scholars recognize that in democratic societies (democratic often being more normative than descriptive), there is a paradox that people need protection both by the police and from the police and that there are tradeoffs between security and freedom. But most definitions of democratic policing offer similar characteristics: the police are “subject to the rule of law embodying values respectful of human dignity, rather than the wishes of a powerful leader or party; can intervene in the life of citizens only under limited and carefully controlled circumstances; and [are] publicly accountable.” It is not a leap of logic to reason that if those who physically uphold the rule of law abide by the principles of democracy, they would also create places that are more democratic than not.
This element of democracy is important to the United States globally. First, there is the theoretical belief that democracy makes the world a safer place. Second, the “advancement of democracy and human rights” is a specified goal of the U.S. government. In the most recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, the Department of State listed security sector accountability and governance as a priority towards this effort. However, there are a couple of major hurdles that the U.S. government faces with regard to implementing effective police democratization efforts worldwide. There is a budget disparity between military and police assistance efforts; in its FY2016 request, the State Department is asking for $5.8 billion in Foreign Military Financing while international police efforts are around $1.2 billion.
The second major hurdle to police reform efforts is Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits the spending of funds on training, advising, or equipping foreign law enforcement forces with a few exceptions. This particular law was passed in 1974 after it became clear that law enforcement training at the time was teaching foreign police methods antithetical to democratic policing principles. Yet in spite of the ability to legislate oversight over police reform and development programs, Congress keeps this law on the books, and U.S. efforts at international police reform have languished. The United States has indeed engaged in police reform through the exceptions list, but the existence of this law has created inhibitions that made even existing efforts weak, if not counterproductive.
Police reform efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been wrought with problems, so much so that police training in these two conflicts was executed by the U.S. military, not policing experts. And when training was not conducted by the military, it was executed by the contracting firm Dyncorp International with depressing results. One of the consequences of Section 660 is that because it prohibits international police training, government agencies have not invested in the capability to train police internationally. Other than counter-narcotic efforts and a small office in the Department of Justice, there is no expertise on this issue and no capacity in the government to conduct operations such as those that were needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no incentive to create this expertise or capacity because there are no standing missions to substantiate such efforts.
This is not to say that police development and reform efforts offer a panacea for U.S. foreign policy. There are, in fact, many challenges to effective police reform in many places where we would be interested in undertaking such efforts. There needs to be political will to reform the police, a reasonably educated population from which to draw officers, and, specific to post-conflict environments, a close planning effort between security sector operations and peacebuilding operations. Would police reform activities in Burundi have prevented the police from acting as the strong arm of the regime? Possibly not. But if the United States is serious about spreading democracy around the globe and improving governance, we need to adjust our focus to the armed organizations most likely to affect that: police forces. It is time to consider a repeal of Section 660.
Jason Fritz is a senior editor at War on the Rocks. An Army veteran of the war in Iraq, he is a doctoral student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University. Jason has consulted on and researched various elements of conflict policing over the past 5 years.
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