Police reform in Kosovo and Bosnia: The power of local legitimacy unpacked By: Birte Julia Gippert | Academic Spotlight | Nov 23, 2016

The power of legitimacy is increasingly invoked by scholars, practitioners, and donors as a crucial prerequisite for any international peacebuilding project. This short article disenchants the almost magical powers accorded to legitimacy via three research findings: First, it shows the causal mechanism behind legitimacy’s impact; second, legitimacy works only in certain contexts and situations; third, it is the only direct power international peacebuilding operations wield.

finp20.v021.i02.coverThis article is contribution #18 in our Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here:

Birte Julia Gippert (2016) Exploring local compliance with peacebuilding reforms: legitimacy, coercion and reward-seeking in police reform in Kosovo, International Peacekeeping, 23:1, 52-7.

As part of a partnership between the International Peacekeeping Journal and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article is available free and open access through this link:



Police reform in Kosovo and Bosnia: The power of local legitimacy unpacked

In the last decade donors, practitioners and academics have jumped onto the long-existing but slowly moving train called ‘legitimacy’. The interest in the concept of legitimacy, an intangible and nebulous feeling that something (usually a power relationship) is right and appropriate and we agree with it, is not new. Law, psychology, and sociology are fields that have a much deeper tradition in investigating legitimacy, usually that of the nation-state, than IR and peacebuilding. However, the latter two have worked hard to catch up and now research on legitimacy is mushrooming to the degree that even large donors and international organisations like the United Nations (UN) have jumped aboard. Donor guidance, strategies, and even field projects now have to pay attention to legitimacy considerations, and scanning the pages of major international conference booklets shows just how many academics now work on the topic.

Legitimacy has become a buzzword, a necessary element of any international peace project be it in the sense of (re-) building the legitimacy of the torn-apart state after conflict, considering the legitimacy of international interventions say of the UN, or the legitimacy of local populations towards international peace operations. If the term legitimacy is not in there somewhere it is not worth writing about it! However, the fun starts when you ask people how they know that something (a state or international operation) is legitimate or not? Can we measure legitimacy? Do we actually know how legitimacy comes about? The answer is usually as fluffy as the concept itself, understandably to a degree. When I started research that analysed whether legitimacy led to compliance with international peacebuilding reforms I had to seriously start thinking about these questions. For the comprehensive thought-process and its detailed outcomes please refer to the article in International Peacekeeping on which this blog is based.

Unpacking legitimacy in practice

Imagine here the usual academic caveats about the limitations of research findings to the studied cases, imperfection of measurement and indicators used, and the typical problems survey and interview data pose. I conducted field work in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina with the local police to understand why they had or had not complied with some chosen police reforms of the respective European Union operation in the country; EULEX in Kosovo and EUPM in Bosnia. I had drawn up and tested a collection of items as proxy measures for legitimacy and also conducted semi-structured interviews that allowed open-ended replies to add depth and meat to the bone of the survey. There were three main findings of my work:

First, legitimacy does indeed lead to local compliance as I had hypothesised and it does so via the intervening variable of an internal moral obligation. To make the variable less fuzzy imagine it as a strong internal feeling that you should do or not do something because it is the right thing to do, NOT because someone bribes you or forces you to do it (that would be an external motivation). High local perceptions of legitimacy often led to a high internal moral obligation, which in turn increased the quality of local compliance. In practice, this means that the operation would have been well-advised to spend more time winning over the senior ranks of the local police and convince them of the legitimacy of the mission and their reforms. A side-finding was in this regard that reforms in these countries are enforced through a top-down approach due to the absolute hierarchy of the senior police leadership. So convincing the top means it will trickle down the chain of command. In short, this finding demonstrates how legitimacy works its heralded magic.

Second, while we are talking of the power of the chain of command and the idea that a police force comprises different ranks of officers, my findings showed that legitimacy was only relevant to compliance in certain situations and contexts. Lower ranked officers would often hold high legitimacy perceptions of the international operations but this would either not or not primarily influence their compliance choices. As the power literature tells us, legitimacy is only one of three power pathways, coercion and reward-seeking are the other two, that I mentioned briefly before as working via an external motivation, a bribe or force. For lower ranked officers it was the coercive threat implied in the direct order of the local chain of command that ensured their compliance (non-compliance entails harsh and swift punishment, including demotion or dismissal). If they also held high perceptions of legitimacy of the international operation this would increase the quality of their compliance. If middle-management ranks and senior ranks held high legitimacy perceptions, this would influence their compliance more considerably. This is because they are under less direct supervision as to their compliance and have therefore more room to think about internal motivations. So if legitimacy was high, this would show in better compliance and if it was low it would show in obstructive behaviour. So in short, the impact of legitimacy on local compliance depended on the rank of the officer, it is not a magical panacea.

Third, legitimacy is really the only power international peacebuilding operations wield directly. This is a counterintuitive finding given the power of the international community that stands behind the operation (at least symbolically through the UN Security Council mandate) and the extensive powers that are often attributed to international missions. While this may be true for peace enforcement and peacekeeping missions that are allowed to use force or have other executive power in the deploying state, this is rarely ever the case for post-conflict peacebuilding missions. These missions usually operate on a shoe-string budget, which means they cannot implement quick-impact projects like ISAF in Afghanistan to buy local support, and they are almost exclusively civilian in nature meaning the use of force is limited. Both EUPM and EULEX tried to use coercive means by threatening a negative report to Brussels but anyone familiar with the entrenched nature of politics in the Western Balkans and the lack of interest in Brussels about non-executive peacebuilding missions knows, as did local actors, that this was an empty threat. Coercion only works if there is the promise of credible and negative sanction, and neither mission was equipped to deliver that.

Conclusion: Lessons learned for more effective police-building missions

From that background it seems less surprising that for local officers it was only the rewards or coercive threats of the local chain of command that mattered. The missions could not credibly promise any rewards important to the officers (promotion, salary increase, recognition) and neither could they have a negative effect on them as long as the local officer adhered to the chain of command orders. It was only the power of the local chain of command that could effectively coerce or bribe officers into compliance. Without direct coercive or reward-power, the international mission’s only direct power is legitimacy- convincing the police of the rightfulness of its authority and its reforms.

This finding relates back to the practical recommendation to peacebuilding missions to early on secure the support of the senior police as they are the key to unlocking the potential of the chain of command for better or for worse. The key to that is legitimacy.

Birte Julia Gippert is a Teaching Assistant in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research focuses on local legitimacy of international peacebuilding operations, local compliance and resistance, and local-international interactions in peacebuilding. She has published on local legitimacy, compliance, and legitimation strategies. Her most recent publication ‘The Sum of its Parts? Sources of Local Legitimacy’ is available on Cooperation and Conflict. A special issue co-edited by Birte and Sarah von Billerbeck on ‘Legitimacy in Conflict’ is forthcoming in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Birte previously worked as a policy researcher for the Kosovar Stability Initiative, a local think tank in Pristina, Kosovo. She holds a BA from the university of Maastricht and a MA and PhD from the University of Reading.

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