Providers or Enforcers? The Duality of Security Forces’ Roles in Covid-19 Response Efforts

As countries around the world continue to struggle to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments may rely upon their security forces to perform a range of functions. While there are important, short-term benefits to leveraging security forces for crisis response, this approach can reinforce dependencies on the security sector for civilian competencies, exacerbate conflict drivers, and strengthen authoritarian tendencies in governments. For example, in Latin America, militaries may now be as important to the state and civilian societies as at any point since the Cold War-era height of their power, due to the role they are playing in Covid-19 response efforts. Whole areas of Chile and Ecuador, among other countries in the region, have been brought under military jurisdiction. The impact of these developments in Latin America, and even globally, may be underreported due to general lack of access and freedom of movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The duality of security forces’ roles in Covid-19 response efforts can present a dilemma for their governments and for international donors. Security forces can both serve as able providers and facilitators of assistance but also as coercive enforcers. Governments may call upon state-based security forces or local community militias to distribute medical assistance and equipment, facilitate civilian access to assistance, and enforce quarantine measures, social distancing, and border security for containment purposes. This may include putting the military in law enforcement functions or positions to buttress law enforcement. State-based security forces may provide important planning capabilities, logistical and transportation equipment, and facilities to support civil authorities. These security sector capacities have been critical to civilian sectors in a number of countries, including the United States.

The risks of relying on security forces to provide Covid-19 assistance include placing security forces in the position of deciding who receives assistance, potentially putting them at odds with health care workers seeking to distribute assistance to all in need. It can also reinforce elite manipulation and predatory behaviors, with the potential for the excessive use of force. Police in Kenya reportedly used excessive force in enforcing curfews earlier this year. This dynamic is compounded if military forces are serving in place or in support of law enforcement and if government authorities have not provided a clear mission and rules for the use of force. Reliance on security forces can create or deepen inequities across civilian populations in access to humanitarian assistance and worsen preexisting humanitarian conditions (e.g., internally displaced persons camps and detention facilities). Vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, women, LGTBQ+ individuals, and religious and ethnic minorities, may be further exploited, isolated, stigmatized, or marginalized through security force actions taken in the interest of public health security measures.

Restricting population movements to contain the spread of the coronavirus could serve as a pretext for curbing popular protests. Hong Kong’s government reportedly used coronavirus-related restrictions to curb protests earlier this year. Cease-fire agreements could be put at risk as well, as security forces respond to Covid-19 needs and step up their presence and operations in sensitive areas. Where security forces are the primary tool and “face” of medical assistance and access, it can also deepen distrust of state-based civilian authorities and doubts about their capacity. Malign actors may exploit these gaps and vacuums of governance by transporting and providing personal protective equipment to vulnerable civilian populations. The so-called Islamic State group has allegedly sought to sell fake N95 masks online to finance its terrorist operations.

In light of these risks, the United States, other donors, multilateral institutions, and humanitarian organizations should be mindful of the duality of security forces’ roles and how they may be leveraged by their governments. Donors, multilateral institutions, and humanitarian organizations should emphasize principles and best practices for civilian protection, effective and humane quarantine measures, and support to civil authorities through diplomatic and military messaging in public and private channels. This messaging can be reinforced by training and advising and placing requirements on international assistance and equipment to promote responsible conduct by security forces. International support to local civil society and independent media remains crucial to both highlight positive steps by security forces—for example, the important facilitating role for health care response efforts security forces have played in Bangladesh—and expose missteps or abuses.

Looking ahead, the risks and opportunities surrounding security forces’ roles in Covid-19 response efforts will likely grow once a vaccine becomes internationally available. Security forces can play an important role in the supply chain, particularly in intermediate delivery, handing off responsibilities for direct delivery to populations to civil authorities in the local health sector. In areas contested by sub-state armed groups, state-based authorities may be challenged in how readily they can deliver vaccines to segments of the population, creating opportunities for armed opposition groups to fill these gaps and buttress their popular legitimacy in pointing to the failures of state authorities or seeking to provide the vaccines to civilians themselves. The United States, other donors, multilateral institutions, and humanitarian organizations should plan now for the responsible role that security forces can play in vaccine dissemination and identifying forces’ comparative advantages in specific country contexts for planning, logistics, and transportation, all while empowering and providing support to civilian governance and health capacity in parallel.

Melissa Dalton is senior fellow and deputy director with the International Security Program and director of the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

This commentary was produced in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Melissa Dalton