Guest Post: Toward Global Standards for Defense Sector Governance

Amira El-Sayed, Program Manager for Transparency International’s Responsible Defence Governance program, contributes today’s guest post:

The governance of military power presents one of the great global challenges of our age. The defense sector is large, powerful, and secretive, and for those reasons especially vulnerable to corruption. In many countries, small groups of elites divert defense resources for personal enrichment, which can create risks to a state’s stability and security. Perhaps ever more troubling, in many countries powerful militaries run vast and secretive business empires exempt from oversight. Some of these businesses, such as resource extraction, are nominally legal, but militaries are often enmeshed with illegal activities like the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people. This too threatens state security, in at least two ways. First, poorly governed, corrupt militaries may be unable to respond effectively to genuine national security threats. Second, when the military uses its power to secure economic advantages for elites, this may contribute to the public resentment and frustration that can fuel violent extremist movements.

Improving governance in the defense sector is especially challenging. Defense sectors have historically hidden behind an “exceptional” status that has been used to stymie governance reform, with “national security” invoked as a sweeping justification to evade legitimate scrutiny from independent institutions and experts, such as auditors, anticorruption institutions, and civil society organizations. And this is not just an issue in authoritarian states: even in democracies, militaries are often exempted from meaningful oversight by parliamentary committees, judiciaries, audit offices, and anticorruption bodies, even as oversight by those bodies expands in other areas. While the need for secrecy may well be more pressing with respect to certain aspects of military and defense policy, the exemption of the defense sector from meaningful scrutiny is often overbroad, unjustified, and used to mask corruption, misuse of resources, and incompetence.

So how do you address one of the most complex challenges in governance, in a sector that has been exceptionally secretive, opaque, and impenetrable? Some of the work has to be done at the national level in individual countries, tailored to the each country’s specific circumstances. (There are many examples of such work by Transparency International (TI) and other civil society organizations. For instance, in Ukraine TI worked to establish high-level defense anticorruption committee called NAKO, and in Nigeria TI worked with the Air Force to take examine its governance structures and anticorruption systems.) But what about global standards, along the lines of what has been developed in other areas, like human rights and labor? Here there appears to be a significant gap. True, some security-related instruments do provide some principles for state/military behavior in specific areas, such as the OCSE Code of Conduct, UN Arms Trade Treaty, the NATO Building Integrity Programme, and the Tshwane Principles. And some of the general anticorruption or governance-related instruments, such as the UN Convention Against Corruption and Open Government Partnership, have some limited applications to the defense sector. But none of these instruments offers a comprehensive global approach to defense governance.

To fill this gap, TI is launching an initiative to formulate, formalize, and promote a set of global principles that underpin responsible, accountable governance of military power—principles that would embrace the idea that the military must be accountable to the people and that would, if followed, improve domestic governance of the defense sector. That is, TI is working with national governments, other civil society organizations, and the international community to develop Global Standards for Responsible Defense Governance, embodied in a Declaration on the Responsible Governance of Military Power.

Is this realistic? Admittedly, such an ambitious initiative will face significant challenges. The US, Russia, and China are unlikely to join a push for the adoption of the Global Standards. And more broadly, the global political climate, even in the developing world, is becoming more hostile to multilateralism, with populist leaders from the Philippines to Turkey and Hungary fiercely attacking international institutions for attempting to influence their national policies. To assess the realism of this agenda, and to get a sense of how best to pursue it in the current climate, TI conducted broad-ranging interviews with more than 150 defense and foreign policy experts, and developed from this consultative process several guidelines to shape our approach to moving the Global Standards Initiative forward:

  • First, the process of formalizing the standards should be state-led, with civil society in a supporting role. For an issue as contentious as defense governance, states are best-placed to convince other governments that such an effort is worthwhile. Allowing governments to take the lead in determining the parameters of the Declaration would help generate genuine commitment to implementation. Given that the major powers are unlikely to play a central role, the initiative will only stand chance of success if supported and driven by influential middle powers within their respective regions. The position of G77 countries, particularly Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa, would powerfully demonstrate to smaller states that committing to responsible governance of the defense sector does not entail ceding sovereignty.
  • Second, the Global Standards should be declarative and voluntary, not treaty-based and legally binding. This is necessary given the primacy of concerns about national sovereignty in the defense and security context. For the foreseeable future, achieving anything more than a declaratory agreement on defense governance will be very challenging, if not impossible. But this need not prevent a set of powerful declaratory principles having impact, particularly if they are easily understood and capture the global imagination. (Keeping the standards voluntary also means that the United States, though not likely to be a leader in promoting the Global Standards, will not try to block or undermine them.)
  • Third, the Global Standards should be more general and behavioral than technical and specific. Technical approaches are effective where there is already strong political will for reform. This is not the case in defense governance, where the value of independent oversight is contested. The initiative should set broad-based international acceptance for the principles of transparency and accountability as its goal.
  • Fourth, the Global Standards should be ambitious in scope to ensure maximum impact. Though universal acceptance would be ideal, in an area as sensitive as defense there is a risk of norms being watered down if broad acceptance is the top priority. In the immediate future, it is unrealistic for any meaningful set of Global Standards to achieve near-universal acceptance. (Russia and China, for example, can reasonably be expected to remain outside any set of Global Standards that is more than empty rhetoric.) The aim instead should be to establish a consensus among a smaller group of international “champions,” and then build support gradually within regional and multilateral fora, perhaps keeping the door open to UN endorsement at a later stage once support for the idea has solidified and the initiative has momentum.
  • Fifth, the most effective and sustainable means of monitoring implementation of the Declaration will be at the domestic level, with the principles entrenched into domestic legislation and practice. For maximum impact, oversight bodies such as anti-corruption institutions, parliamentary committees, government ministries, and even civil society organizations, should have the appropriate tools available that will help them monitor progress at the domestic level. These might include the Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index which assesses corruption risk in defense sectors world-wide. Domestic oversight will also be vital to ensure the involvement of national civil society organizations in building the “enforcement pressure” necessary to secure effective domestic implementation mechanisms.

Will a set of Global Standards on defense sector governance, developed and promoted along the lines suggested above, make a meaningful difference? Though the initiative’s bold nature may raise eyebrows, there are reasons for optimism. The codification of ambitious norms can, over time, have a seismic impact on international behavior if a strongly motivated and diverse group of international stakeholders coalesce around a set of ideas. Incremental rather than drastic changes will pave the way to successful reforming of the way defense world-wide is governed, in the long run. And this initiative has already been received with enthusiasm by various governments with strong track records in anticorruption. Colombia has committed to being the Global Standards’ first founding member, and other countries have shown interest to follow in its footsteps. The immediate way forward is to continue working with Ministries of Defense, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and national NGOs in focus countries, which will play a vital role to recruit more signatory states and ensure maximum impact, as well as to gather momentum among stakeholders in international civil society.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Toward Global Standards for Defense Sector Governance

  1. I remember our first advocacy efforts for transparency in the defense sector back when I worked for TI Lithuania. Unsurprisingly, what helped at some point was a… corruption scandal in defense procurement which shook the Ministry of Defense into engaging to a more open conversation with my colleagues. I would not be surprised if this would also be the case for many foreign countries – I think the defense sector wants to be perceived as honorable and trustworthy by the public, otherwise it hurts (among other things) the reputation of the military, resulting in less conscripts. Since no country and no ministry of defense is immune to corruption (unfortunately), I think that there will be a slow but steady flow of countries that start viewing transparency in the defense more seriously.

    I am a bit confused about the approach you suggest though. If I understand correctly, TI only provides guidelines and leaves it up for the states to come up with the standards – does it mean that the state can decide to have super low standards and still declare itself to be part of the initiative? Or will there be a certain threshold / judgement call by local TI chapter?

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. I agree that the defense sector is ripe for reform and that too often “national security” is played as a trump card to halt even dialogue around reform. However, I’m curious if there are any countries that you think are doing well with this already, and what role those countries might play in elaborating and advocating for the Global Standards. Such countries would seem to be likely candidates to be early adopters of the Global Standards (as they wouldn’t need to make many changes to comply with the norms described in the Standards) and their experiences with more transparent defense sectors would demonstrate that such solutions are workable. They might also have expertise that could be exportable, though it’s unclear to me how much information sharing would really take place in the traditionally secretive defense space. On the flip side, you mention the important of getting on board key G77 countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. The more difficult it is for these countries to live up to the aspirations of the Global Standards, the less likely they they will be to join and provide necessary leadership, or so it seems to me. I guess my overall point is, I find it difficult to evaluate just how likely the Global Standards initiative will be until I know what the playing field looks like at the moment. Does that make sense? Anyway, thanks again for a great post.

  3. Thank you for this interesting post, Ms. El-Sayed. As you mentioned, developing global standards for defense sector governance with a real potential to be adopted seems like a big challenge, and I am curious to see how this initiative will progress.

    In the first paragraph of your post you explained why corruption in a state’s defense sector is first and foremost a problem for the state itself. Therefore, it seems likely that most states would choose to better address corruption in this field if they knew how to do so without risking their legitimate interests. I am curious what advantage global standards have over the work that has been (and will be) done at the national level, which as you mentioned (in the third paragraph), is individually tailored to the circumstances of the relevant state.

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