Women and Specialised Police Teams (SPTs) in UN Peace Operations

United Nations/Flickr: United Nations Chiefs of Police Summit
March 25, 2024

First deployed in 2010, fifty years after the first police were authorized as part of a UN peace operation, specialised police teams or SPTs are the newest form of international police peacekeeping deployment. These teams have since been recognised as innovative complements to individual police officers (IPOs) and formed police units (FPUs) in UN police peacekeeping.

Typically, SPTs are comprised of police officers and civilian policing experts focused on skills transfer and capacity building through technical assistance and advice, training, and mentoring to host-state police in a specific area of police operations or administration. SPTs are highly technical and project-oriented, with defined goals, a progression plan, deliverables, human resources management, communications management, and risk management, with possible funding for specific activities. Generally, they are deployed in contexts where UN police or UNPOL already have an important role in strengthening rule-of-law institutions and a dedicated budget for police reform activity.

Key benefits, strengths, and comparative advantages of SPTs over IPOs include that they:

  • Are generally highly capable and meet high standards in specialized areas of policing;
  • Provide a more coherent and cohesive approach to police capacity building;
  • Focus on objectives within a specific area captured in a project-oriented plan;
  • Maximize capabilities by matching the work of officers to their skill sets;
  • Can be quick to deploy and adaptable to context-specific needs and challenges;
  • Maintain continuity by implementing projects that typically run three to five years;
  • Facilitate relationship building by including officers with a cultural or linguistic affinity with host-state police;
  • Use sustainable capacity-building approaches such as training of trainers;
  • Provide broader benefits to missions such as up-skilling other mission personnel, contributing to other mandated priorities, and creating opportunities to address sensitive issues; and
  • Are more attractive to some police- contributing countries and provide a better experience for police personnel because of their orientation toward results and deployment as a team.

Obstacles to greater effectiveness include that SPTs:

  • Confront high-level tensions over their development and administration, both within the UN Police Division and between the UN and member states;
  • Experience supply-side issues due to their reliance on voluntary contributions and shortages of specially trained officers and civilian experts;
  • Are dominated by countries in the Global North, which can lead them to be seen as “Western” missions within the overall mission;
  • Have inconsistent composition, plans, and modalities from mission to mission and even among SPTs in the same mission and from phase to phase within the same SPT;
  • Lack sufficient guidance on key operational aspects;
  • Lack consistent and sufficient funding and face administrative and budgetary barriers that limit timely access to funding that is available;
  • Are disconnected from broader efforts, including due to internal divisions and tensions that undermine integration with the rest of the police component, lack of a compre- hensive approach that includes the broader criminal justice system, inadequate communi- cation and coordination with the rest of the mission and the UN country team, and poor understanding and support from senior mission leadership;
  • Implement unsustainable programming that focuses on “quick wins” rather than investment in host states’ long-term capacity to conduct follow-on training; and
  • Often lack adequate frameworks for monitoring and evaluation and have no processes or structures for organizational learning and knowledge management.

Given STPs are typically made-up of highly skilled, effective trainers, these specialised teams can help build the capacity of other mission personnel in very important ways. For example, by focusing on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), SPTs can reenforce missions' early warning, training, and advisory services to the host-state counterparts that respond to (and sometimes perpetrate) these crimes. This means SPTs can make outsized contributions to cross-cutting agendas such as women, peace, and security.

However, a great challenge in this regard is poor inter-agency communication and the subsequent duplication of efforts. For example, in Sudan, a range of UN entities (UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, and UNITAMS) were all doing training with the Sudanese Police Force on SGBV, not knowing the others are doing the same thing. The same was said to be true of some non-UN entities such as Interpol, which could be a useful partner on issues like transnational organized crime and violent extremism. There is therefore a need to coordinate workplans and language to align the efforts of SPTs with other actors within and outside of the mission working on police reform and capacity building to optimise results.

Another obstacle is women's representation in SPTs. For instance, a rule originally designed for military peacekeepers requiring that SPT members are under fifty-five years old at the time of deployment does not make sense in the context of SPTs. To have accrued the specialist skills required for service in SPTs, officers will necessarily be later in their careers. Furthermore, this rule makes it even more difficult to find women SPT members, who often apply for UN roles later in life. This predicament limits an already small pool of candidates. Secondly, the rules and terms of reference relating to recruitment of civilian experts (e.g., lawyers, database specialists, or dedicated administrative experts to navigate UN bureaucracy) are rather rigid, again, complicating the recruitment of women SPT members. Similarly, the same can be said for the rules and language on extensions and transfers, which not only contributes to the insufficient representation of women, but also leads to obstacles around retention of staff and the optimisation of scarce human resources and institutional knowledge.

To read the full report, Specialized Police Teams in UN Peace Operations: A Survey of Progress and Challenges, published in March 2024, see here

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