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Central Asia: The Politics of Police Reform

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The capacity of security forces to both prevent and provoke conflict is increasingly recognised. Police forces can play a vital role in providing the security environment necessary for peaceful political and economic development, and are at the forefront of tackling international security issues, including drugs trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. A competent and democratised security sector is vital to enhancing governance and ensuring greater public trust in the state. Bad security forces, on the other hand, can provoke or deepen conflict and create environments where terrorism can prosper. Getting the security sector right is a key element in conflict prevention.

Unlike in many developing countries, the military in Central Asian states plays a more limited role in everyday political life than the interior ministries. Police forces in the region are much more powerful than the militaries and include their own armed units designed for internal control. They have a considerable role in political life that may grow further in the future. Although the role of militaries in Central Asian societies should not be ignored, the internal security forces pose the greater threat to stability and the greater opposition to deeper economic and political reform.

In Central Asia the structures of most police forces have changed little since the Soviet period. While societies and economic systems have undergone rapid transition, the organs of state security remain largely unreformed. In many ways they are actually worse than under the Soviet state: more corrupt, less responsive to the population, more involved in organised crime, and often out of the control of political masters. The police are feared, mistrusted and viewed as ineffective in protecting the population from crime.

The security sector in Central Asian states suffers from under-funding, lack of qualified personnel, and rampant corruption. The Ministry of Interior in Kyrgyzstan receives less than 25 per cent of its funding from the budget; the rest comes from a mixture of businesses, protection rackets and extortion. In Tajikistan the figures are even worse. The police have to break the law simply to carry out their duties, often starting the day by extorting petrol from drivers for their patrol cars and devoting much of their time to illegally boosting their small official salaries. They have become increasingly ineffectual at fighting serious crime and terrorism, partly because they have themselves become closely entangled in criminal networks engaged in contraband and drugs trafficking.

The entire security sector in these countries – including the military, the judicial and penal systems and the various forces charged with internal security – requires sustained, long-term reform. This report, however, focuses on the most problematic of the institutions, the police, which has the greatest potential to cause future instability.

There are three main areas where unreformed police forces have a serious detrimental impact on development and pose a threat to stability.

First, police forces and the justice system are not effective in countering serious criminal and terrorist threats. Although in some instances and in all three countries the police have done valuable work, a combination of high-level corruption, lack of professionalism, lack of cooperation with the general public, and serious resource limitations or misdirection of funds has allowed these threats to flourish.

Secondly, police forces are largely seen as the coercive branch of government rather than a neutral, service-oriented force that ensures law and order for all. They are involved in widespread human rights abuses that have estranged them from the society they are supposed to serve. In Uzbekistan they have led the repression against those accused of religious extremism and political opposition to the regime. Abuses by the police, including torture, have fuelled support for extremist groups and enhanced the risk the region faces from terrorism. In Kyrgyzstan's recent unrest, shooting by police of five demonstrators set off much wider civil disorder and engendered a national political crisis.

Thirdly, security forces are acting as a brake on economic progress. Security is a key concern for domestic business and international investors but too often the police are not seen as defenders of business from criminals. Instead they are often involved in extortion rackets, costing business significant profits, or are directly involved in organised crime.

Bilateral agencies, such as the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), are looking at ways to promote security sector reform as a development issue. So far much focus has been on post-conflict situations but it also is important for conflict prevention.

Much international assistance to police forces in Central Asia continues to focus on bilateral training and technical assistance with little attention to structural reform or cultural change. Although all police forces in the region lack adequate funding, equipment and training, assistance in these areas on its own without wider reform is unlikely to make significant difference to their overall effectiveness. Most technical assistance actually goes for high-tech solutions determined by the donor's policies. Not only is this seldom effective, but it can also on occasion merely legitimise existing practices and promote more corruption. Ideally, all technical assistance should be linked to reform-oriented outcomes and serve as a stimulus to changes in behaviour.

There is little coordination among donors and different government institutions involved in assistance to law enforcement agencies. Yet there is a wealth of experience of police reform among Western states, where many problems faced by Central Asian police forces have been evident at one time or another. International organisations have done little in this field, but the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has begun to take police reform seriously. The UN also has an important opportunity, through its Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) and the translation of UNDP's research on security sector reform into on-the-ground projects.

The obstacles to reforms should not be underestimated. Interior ministries are politically powerful in each of the Central Asian states. In many cases, they have little incentive to change if that means undermining their personal political and financial power bases. Many have experienced previous reforms that have done little except shift personnel or introduce unrealistic concepts from outside. Reforms have to take into account this internal opposition and develop appreciation within security forces of their long-term benefits. Unless they do so, there is little hope that wider concepts of good governance, democratisation and economic development will flourish in this unstable region.

Long-term reform and democratisation of police forces will take many years and involve much wider policy shifts in governance, economies, judiciaries, intelligence services and legal systems. This report attempts to initiate a discussion of how the most immediate problems posed by security forces within each country can be addressed and to engage the international community in a problem that threatens to undermine other efforts to promote regional stability.


To the government of Kyrgyzstan:

1. Reconvene the State Commission on Law Enforcement Agencies and encourage it to develop a far-reaching draft for reform of law enforcement agencies in coordination with reforms in the justice and penal systems.

2. Encourage widespread discussion within the police and media and with international organisations of a reform plan among whose key elements are:

(a) achieving a viable and sustainable financial base for policing activities, including training, technical equipment, and adequate salaries for officers;

(b) structural reforms aimed at changing the culture of policing and used as a method of reducing the levels of corruption in police ranks, including decentralisation of control where necessary to local government;

(c) increasing oversight functions for society, NGOs, elected assemblies, other security and justice structures, and primarily the court system; and

(d) much stricter definition of what each security service does, with a law on police powers and their limits and specific prohibitions on torture and abuse of power.

To the government of Tajikistan:

3. Reinvigorate the special commission on power structures to continue its work against officers in security forces involved in corrupt and criminal activity.

4. Begin an assessment of the true security needs of the country in its new peaceful phase of development, taking into account continuing security threats and budgetary realities.

5. Ensure that all police undergo proper training, including on the rights of lawyers and defendants, and international and national prohibitions against torture and other abuses.

6. Allow the media and NGOs increased access to law enforcement agencies so as to improve social monitoring of their activities, with particular focus on police brutality.

7. Invite the UN and other international organisations to discuss how assistance could be used within an overall reform plan for the law enforcement agencies.

To the government of Uzbekistan:

8. Encourage a debate on the role and effectiveness of the police through the media, international organisations, academic and research institutes, and within the police themselves.

9. Develop a police law that will clearly define police powers and their limits, including specific prohibitions on torture, and incorporating the provisions of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.

10. Initiate serious investigations into police corruption, using mixed commissions from all security services, government officials, and independent figures, beginning with police education establishments and their entry procedures.

11. Ensure better oversight of the law enforcement agencies and a reduction in human rights abuses by:

(a) permitting legal registration of NGOs involved in monitoring law enforcement agencies and giving them access to places of detention;

(b) developing a more independent judicial system, with greater rights for advocates, including clarified rights of access, and diminished powers for the procuracy;

(c) ensuring that journalists are not harassed or prevented from writing critical articles regarding the actions of law enforcement agencies;

(d) establishing an independent complaints body, including representatives of civil society, to investigate all accusations of ill-treatment by the police and other security organs; and

(e) passing legislation based on international conventions and similar legislation in other states that is aimed specifically at ending torture by law enforcement and justice officials.

To the international community:

12. Place torture high on the agenda of relations with the Central Asian nations, stressing that its use by police enhances the risk of extremism and undermines support for governments, and back up political pressure with a coordinated program to put in place measures against the practice.

13. Fund research and seminars on police reform, human rights and security, focused both on short-term needs and long-term change.

14. Draw up common bilateral aid guidelines for each country, particularly respecting drug interdiction, to ensure that common messages regarding the necessity of reform are not undermined.

15. Include security sector reform in development plans, including in World Bank Poverty Reduction Strategies.

16. Link bilateral and multilateral economic aid to programs in judicial reform and reform of security structures.

Osh/Brussels, 10 December 2002


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