Parliamentary oversight of the security sector refers to the role the democratically-elected branch of the legislature plays in oversight and monitoring of security sector policies and practices. More broadly, parliamentary oversight is a critical component of legislative governance of the security sector.

What is Parliamentary Oversight?

The role of parliamentarians and parliamentary committees is multi-faceted:

  • determining the legal framework for security policy and practice;
  • monitoring, debating and shaping policy and practice in plenary sessions and in specialised committees, including not only those dealing with defence, law enforcement and intelligence oversight, but also human rights, audit, budget and finance committees;
  • approving, developing or rejecting policy, laws and budgets; and involvement in the appointment processes for senior posts within the security institutions to minimize any political interference

Such activities presume a sustained degree of motivation and focused activity by interested parliamentarians. The authority of parliamentarians on security sector oversight issues derives from the credibility of their oversight activities and their ability to monitor and engage with the public, government and security institutions on oversight issues.

Conducting any or all of these oversight activities can serve as a catalyst for change in the security sector: once parliamentarians publicly or privately highlight a particular oversight challenge, it is usually assigned a higher priority by government, institutions and the security sector itself.

Maintaining a comprehensive legislative framework for oversight and management of security institutions is of critical importance. Such frameworks must be compatible with international obligations and universal human rights. Scrutiny of draft legislation, amendments to and the adoption, or rejection, of such laws are parliament’s fundamental responsibility. Without such consistent law-making activity the level of national oversight will become less effective overall.

The oversight capacity of Parliaments to monitor security sector agencies, security policies and security practices is a vital component of democratic governance of the security sector. Parliaments hold a crucial responsibility for shaping public policy and law making, via scrutiny of policies, practices, budgets, and appointments. Their representation of a plurality of the political spectrum beyond a majoritarian party allows parliaments and its committees to play a central democratic governance role.

Oversight, according to the European Parliament, involves verifying compliance by security sector actors with general policy and established laws and regulations governing their operation, as well as scrutinising effectiveness and efficiency of security sector institutions. Oversight and democratic control are exercised at two levels. First, the security sector is subjected to its own internal control and oversight exercised by the executive branch including the government, ministries, armed forces commands, police and intelligence chiefs. Second, external control and oversight is exercised by the parliament, the judiciary, independent bodies, civil society and international institutions.[1]

Why is it important?

The European Parliament outlines that in order them to be effective, security institutions must be politically accountable to the legitimate authorities of the state and to the democratically-elected representatives of the people through parliamentary oversight. In formulating national security policies and priorities, the parliament represents the views of the electorate. In exercising its role of oversight, parliament verifies that special powers, such as the use of force, are applied in compliance with national and international law. Correspondingly, budget approval is one of parliament’s most important means to exert democratic control over the executive.[2]

How does it work?

As the European Parliament explains, the Parliament exercises its powers of oversight at various stages, either alone or in conjunction with the executive. The Parliament examines, modifies and endorses the general policies governing the security sector, as proposed by the executive. The Parliament can determine both the level and the content of security sector expenditure. The Parliament will, on its own initiative, verify the ongoing operation of the security sector, by examining whether security sector activities comply with the general policies, agreed budget and other relevant legal provisions. In this process, special committees constitute a valuable source of expertise and a useful communication tool. Parliaments also grant clearing for security sector policies pursued by the executive, with or without prior hearings on the matter. Parliaments may discuss and evaluate the conduct of military operations after their conclusion. Additionally, parliament can also directly associate itself with certain decisions, giving it a measure of control over, for example, the appointment of senior officials; declaring war or a state of emergency, the ratification of treaties, procurement of arms, and the deployment of troops abroad.[3]

Best Practices:

According to the European Parliament, best practices in parliamentary oversight derive from a set of four common principles governing the democratic control of the security sector, in general, and the role of parliament in particular:

  • Checks and balances between the institutions of government.
  • Transparency
  • Responsiveness to the needs of the electorate
  • Accountability[4]

Principles of democratic and parliamentary oversight:[5]

  • The state is the only actor in society that has the legitimate monopoly of the use of force;
  • The security services are accountable to the legitimate democratic authorities;
  • The parliament is sovereign and holds the executive accountable for the development, implementation, and review of the security and defence policies;
  • The parliament has a unique constitutional role in authorising and scrutinising defence and security expenditures;
  • The parliament plays a crucial role with regard to declaring and lifting a state of emergency or the state of war;
  • Principles of good governance and the rule of law apply to all branches of government and, therefore, to the security sector as well;
  • Security sector personnel are individually accountable to judicial courts for violations of national and international laws (regarding civil or criminal misconduct)
  • Security Sector organisations are politically neutral.



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[1] Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Oversight, European Parliament (2013), Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector,  p. 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] DCAF and Inter-Parliamentary Union (2003), Parliamentary Oversight of the Security Sector. Principles, Mechanism and Practices. Handbook for Parliamentarians No 5.

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