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Apr 30, 2013 | Commentary

One of the most persistent criticisms of SSR practice is its inability to operate in a politically attuned way; the reform process instead tends to be treated as a technocratic, bureaucratized problem. While I agree with these general critiques, I’m also left wanting a more detailed account of which political forces derail SSR programming—and how—within specific contexts.  In this light, one of the most interesting papers I read from the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Francisco earlier this month looked at how political dynamics influence and stymie efforts at justice reform in Haiti.

The paper, written by Louis-Alexandre Berg, outlines the recent history of justice reform in Haiti. The system’s inability to adjudicate cases fairly, efficiently or impartially has consistently been treated as a “capacity” problem; interventions, which focused on improving capacity deficits in terms of the number of justice, lawyers, prosecutors and even the quality of legal aid, have largely failed to generate sustainable improvements.

These interventions have failed in large part because they neglect Haiti’s incomplete transition from authoritarian rule. The country’s political reality remains a zero-sum struggle between polarized political blocs, featuring exclusive politics (winner takes all; loser loses all); and above all a reliance on informal networks to exclude opponents, take power and govern.

In this context, the paper argues that country’s inability to reform its justice system stems from the fact that the ineffectiveness of the justice system actually works in the favour of political elites in at least two specific areas. First, elites are able to shield their informal (and often criminal) networks from prosecution, using corruption to capture the justice system for their own ends. Second, in rural Haiti control over the justice system at the local level gives politicians a lever (control over land title), which allows them to consolidate their political power at the community level. Control over a weak judiciary is part of a political machine that barters favourable land claims for political influence and votes.

In broad terms, the paper shows how what donors have seen as a technical problem (scarcity of personnel, corruption, inefficiency) actually serves an important role for Haiti’s political elite, who have accordingly been reluctant to advance meaningful reform of the justice system.


Geoff Burt is Vice President of the Security Governance Group.