News & views | 9 November 2017 | by Niels Terpstra

Courtesy of: Kurdishstruggle @ FLickr©

Policing in conflict-affected areas: some observations from the Human Security Survey in South Sudan and Iraq

‘Policing’ in the broad sense of the word has existed in various ways throughout history. Human collectives have always sought to maintain some sense of communal order and attempted to correct those who depart from the communally acceptable behavior.[1] The fact that formal nation-states currently take up the main tasks of policing is however, a rather modern phenomenon. In pre-industrial Europe, for example, crime control was a local community affair. The formal institutionalization of security provision came later, in parallel with the emergence of the nation-state.[2]  In that sense, policing is an activity that can be carried out by both state and non-state actors, or anything in between. That is why Bruce Baker, professor of African Security at the Coventry University defines policing as  “any organized activity, whether by the state or non-state groups, that seeks to ensure the maintenance of communal order, security and peace through elements of prevention, deterrence, investigation of breaches, and punishment”.[3]

In regions of South Sudan and Iraq, where PAX carries out the Human Security Survey (HSS), it becomes clear how multiple actors carry out policing tasks. In some instances where the formal state police are absent or ineffective, other actors are involved in providing some degree of protection to communities within the civilian population. However, defining what is formal and informal is particularly difficult as some militias are loosely associated with the state and generally perceived as formal security providers, but in practice they operate autonomously and/or are funded by outside sources. This creates security mechanisms in which the formal and the informal, as well as the state and non-state overlap and intertwine.

South Sudan

In South Sudan PAX carried out a first survey round in three counties within the Eastern Equatoria State (EES): Torit, Ikwoto and Budi.[4] Particularly in Budi it became clear that there was a low presence of the formal police.[5] The police are not always aware of the local security dynamics, so initiatives of community policing sometimes take over the responsibility to protect civilians. As noted in the first HSS report:

(…) local initiatives involve local participants, who are better connected and informed about local security dynamics. Police officers, on the other hand, come from outside the county and often even from outside the state, thereby making their knowledge of local conditions and even their ability to speak the local language, fairly limited.[6]

This is not the case in all counties that were studied, but in those instances where the formal government has a low presence, or is even completely absent, this seems a regular mechanism that takes place.

Interestingly, most respondents in Budi (78%) noted that the local defense forces were working in favor of security, whereas in Torit and Ikwoto the respondents were less positive.[7] During feedback sessions in the counties, the respondents explained that there were various local defense groups that protected particular communities. In Budi the respondents mentioned a group named Rescue Committee, and in Ikwoto a group existed that was called Yau Yau. These defense forces operated in a security vacuum of the formal police. Partly, this seemed due to limited staff capacity and resources (police stations, cars, petrol) to effectively patrol and be present in the periphery of these counties.[8] In a situation where unidentified armed men would surround their town, respondents in all three counties noted that the first security actor to contact would be the police, the local defense forces or the chief. In Budi, where the police capacity is low, however, a large part of the respondents would call in the local defense forces (49%), rather than the police (33%).[9]

At the same time, however, other findings from the HSS in South Sudan also show that there is a certain appreciation for security providers from outside of the local communities. Some respondents noted that ‘outsiders’ would be able to enforce the laws more objectively, less dependent upon their ethnic or family ties to the communities and potential perpetrators concerned. Some respondents explained that they did not always trust the more locally grounded security providers with doing an unbiased job. In other words, even though local actors may be better informed and better rooted in the communities, it does not unconditionally render them more legitimate in the eyes of the civilian population.

More recent HSS surveys in other regions (Jonglei State, Eastern Lakes State) showed more specifically how security perceptions can vary between rural and urban areas. In larger settlements and towns such as Torit, Yirol and Bor there is a stronger presence of, and appreciation for, the police.[10] The formal police forces seem to function better in the urban areas and a high number of respondents note that the police takes reports from community members seriously and are helpful in resolving them.[11]


In Iraq the HSS has been carried out in the Basra and Kirkuk governorates. Kirkuk is located in the North of Iraq while Basra governorate is located in the South, bordering Iran and Kuwait. While assessing the formal and informal policing activities in these two areas, the first observation must be that the security domain is rather fragmented between various forces and dependent upon military dynamics on the regional, national, and local level.[12] The military and political situation throughout most of Iraq is currently in flux with ISIS losing large swaths of territory and the reconfigurations of territorial control in response to the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In early 2017, PUK-Peshmerga, various Turkmen Popular Mobilization Forces, Shi’a Arab Popular Mobilization Forces, and local police forces were present in the Kirkuk governorate.[13] At that time, locals already feared hostilities to break out over long-standing issues of political control throughout Kirkuk, with regional, national and local stakeholders involved.[14] The referendum held in Iraqi Kurdistan late September of this year indeed instigated a response from the Iraqi federal government and most of the Kurdish forces withdrew from the Kirkuk territories.[15]

From the Southern province of Basra, a large number of Iraqi security forces were redeployed to the North of the country to support the combat against ISIS between 2014 and 2017.[16] This weakened the capacity of the army and the police force throughout Basra and created more space for other political- and security actors to step in such as Shi’a militias. The presence of these militias in Basra has increased significantly over the past couple of years.[17] Other reports show an increase of criminal activity in Basra, especially drug trafficking, theft, kidnapping for ransom and other forms of violence.[18] The HSS showed that 64% of the respondents in Basra do not feel safe from violence and crime in their communities.[19]

Despite the current volatility of the situation, first impressions of the HSS nevertheless indicate that it is generally common for people in Kirkuk and Basra to approach the regular police forces. In nearly all of the areas where the survey was carried out, the police would be the security actor that people would approach after criminal incidents such as theft or murder. [20] At the same time however, low percentages of respondents also mentioned the police itself as instigator of insecurity, particularly in the surveys in Basra.[21] Sectarianism is considered to have a large impact on the regions studied in Basra (82%) and Kirkuk (65%).[22] Terrorist organizations are conceived to have a strong negative impact on security as noted by the respondents in Kirkuk, though the defeat of Deash was only mentioned by a minority (14%) as the main solution for lasting peace.[23] A majority of the respondents in both Basra and Kirkuk noted that in the first place, economic issues and bad governance on the national and governorate level concerned them as causes for further conflict escalation in their communities.[24]


A functioning formal police force or variations of informal policing on themselves are not a panacea to human security threats. Rather, what the HSS research teaches us is that security dynamics are very complex and that the effective protection of civilians varies significantly from one place to another. It depends on the specific context, both in time and place. Local, national and regional conflicts can escalate and de-escalate and sometimes there are strong variations between security needs in the urban and rural areas. General concerns over good governance and economic security can be regarded of highest importance to communities.

There are obvious gains in terms of security in a system where there is stronger accountability, but it is hard to know how that accountability can be achieved. Close relations and trust between the various security providers and civilians may prove to be important, but at the same time these can decrease the ability of those actors to provide unbiased enforcement. In most cases the protection of civilians does not depend on the improvement of state capacities only, it also depends on seeing what kind of security dynamics are at work on the community level, and seeking inroads to strengthen mechanisms to hold instigators of insecurity accountable for their actions. This is where instruments like the HSS become particularly relevant: to get a better understanding of what security means at a specific time, at a specific place, and seek for tailored solutions to improve the protection of civilians in conflict-affected areas.

The larger regional and national factors, however, cannot be dismissed in the assessment of human security threats. The Kirkuk case in Iraq shows how some of the reconfigurations of power on the national and regional level have a strong effect on the local levels of security and may overrule the effectiveness of provisions for security that used to be in place.

[1] Baker, B. 2008, Multi-Choice Policing in Africa, Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, p. 10.

[2] Ibid. p. 10.

[3] Ibid. p. 5.

[4] PAX, 2015, Human Security Survey Eastern Equatoria State, South Sudan, April-May 2015: Pilot Survey conducted in Torit, Budi & Ikwoto counties, p. 6.

[5] Ibid. p. 15-16.

[6] Ibid. p. 17.

[7] Ibid. p. 17.

[8] Ibid. p. 17.

[9] Ibid. p. 19.

[10] PAX Human Security Survey results South Sudan, 2017 – Jonglei State and Eastern Lakes State.

[11] PAX Human Security Survey results South Sudan, 2017 – Jonglei State and Eastern Lakes State.

[12] Gaston & Derzsi-Horváth (2017) Iraq after ISIL: An Analysis of Local, Hybrid, and Sub-State Security Forces. Online available on:

[13] Ibid.


[15] International Crisis Group, 2017, Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm. Online available on:

[16] OSAC, 2017, Iraq 2017 Crime & Safety Report: Basrah, published on 3 July, p. 1.

[17] Ibid., p. 1,4.

[18] OSAC, 2017, Iraq 2017 Crime & Safety Report: Basrah, published on 3 July, p. 1.


[20] PAX Human Security Survey results Iraq, 2017.

[21] PAX Human Security Survey results Iraq, 2017.

[22] PAX Human Security Survey results Iraq, 2017;

[23] PAX Human Security Survey results Iraq, 2017.

[24] PAX Human Security Survey results Iraq, 2017;

Tags: , , , ,

About the Author

Comments are closed.

Back to Top ↑