South Asia is probably the most ‘illiterate’ region with regard to security sector reform (SSR). The countries in the region (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) have some standard guidelines for governing their security sectors but these are largely ineffective. As a result, most of the security sectors in the region are characterised by excessive state control, lack of accountability and transparency, and the absence of civil society participation.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is the only relevant regional forum but it is ineffective in influencing, much less introducing, policy relating to national or regional security architecture. In spite of the apparent lack of understanding of the policy framework SSR provides, security sectors in the region need to be studied because their agenda, both in substance and style, is clearly distinct from those in other regions of the world.
In South Asia, the emphasis is more on governance, accountability and transparency, rather than creating security sectors or building capacity within them. The only exception is Afghanistan, where decades of conflict and civil strife have destroyed all national security sector elements.
The countries in the region that were under British colonial rule exhibit, to a large extent, professional and effective security sectors. Together, they contribute the largest number of peacekeepers to United Nations peacekeeping. However, just as during the colonial period, the
Executive is too powerful. Partly due to this common colonial history, and to unfinished processes of nation-building, governments in the region continue to oppose transparency and accountability in the security sector:
- The security discourse has largely been confined to government circles, with little room for civil society voices. Defence expenditures, in particular, are hardly debated, even within parliaments.
- In 2005, the Right to Information legislation was passed in India, signalling the beginning of increased accountability in the government’s functioning and decision-making. Such positive developments need to spread to all agencies of the government, as well as to governments in the region as a whole.
- Various reforms are underway in individual countries’ security sectors. However, these have missed out on the larger benefits of a comprehensive all-of-government reform agenda and framework. In some countries, this has resulted in uneven growth within the security sector.
- The pre-eminence of one component of the security sector, to the detriment of others, poses serious problems to the very nature and type of governance. For instance, Pakistan and Bangladesh are fortunate to have strong militaries but the disadvantages of this have been frequent military coups and underdeveloped democratic governance.
South Asia comprises about a fifth of humankind with the largest numbers of the poorest and most deprived people in the world. It is of utmost importance that issues of security sector reform and governance are addressed quickly and with greater cooperation.
A Mallika Joseph
Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
B 7/3 Lower Ground Floor