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Preventing violence through the rule of law: changing our approach to fit a changing landscape

To maximize the potential of the rule of law to prevent violence we must do more to help shape positive experiences of security and justice, says Alejandro Alvarez, Team Leader of the Rule of Law, Justice, Security and Human Rights team in UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Program Support.


Not long ago, the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda  proclaimed boldly that, “Freedom from conflict and violence is the most fundamental human entitlement, and the essential foundation for building peaceful and prosperous societies.” But violence continues to plague millions of people in all regions of the world. Popular movements across the globe, both past and present, demonstrate that the risk of violent outbreaks is particularly present where perceptions of injustice and inequality are high. Indeed, these grievances breed resentment and mistrust within society and hold tremendous negative consequences for human security and development. This persistent insecurity keeps people from improving their prospects for the future, affects national and local economic growth, and diverts government resources away from meaningful development endeavors. Additional risks of violence can emanate from threats and conditions that have become more prominent in recent years: for example, the presence of well-funded armed groups and transnational criminal gangs, lucrative illicit weapons trade, systemic impunity for crimes such as sexual and gender-based violence and human rights abuses, and endemic political and judicial corruption.

Over the last two decades, the rule of law has been hailed as critical to establishing durable peace in settings that are plagued by the legacy of violence. The international community has responded accordingly by providing human and financial resources, and technical assistance to reform and strengthen justice and security institutions in these contexts. In a (perhaps overly simplistic) nutshell, the thinking behind these efforts is that technical assistance will rebuild strong justice and security institutions; strong justice and security institutions will deliver better services to the population; better services will aid in improving state-society relations; improved state-society relations will contribute to reducing violence and increasing respect for human rights; and reduced violence and increased respect for human rights will strengthen peace.

But our experiences in implementing some large-scale initiatives to reform justice and security institutions in places such as Afghanistan and South Sudan prove that we have not had as great an impact on reducing violence and strengthening peace as we had hoped for. People living in these and other complex situations still experience insecurity and violence, and often see their needs for justice remain unmet. In some situations, justice and security institutions are too weak to fulfil their purposes, causing people to lose faith in the authority and ability of the state to protect them and uphold the rule of law. But even when strong institutions are in place, justice and security actors may foster political and social contestation that can lead to violence, and in the worst cases, may even perpetuate violence through carrying out human rights abuses and discrimination themselves. Across development settings, people tend to face on a near daily basis abuse of power, corruption (including bribery), and discrimination when interacting with law enforcement officials and the justice system, contributing to a loss of trust in state institutions. The recent experiences in many Arab States as well as other countries around the globe prove that the exclusion, inequality and discrimination resulting from these unmet justice and security needs can lead to violent, protracted conflict.

The World Bank’s groundbreaking 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development firmly underscored the need to respond to the actual sources of injustice and discrimination that intensify the risks of violent conflict by undermining trust between state and society. But up to this point, international rule of law actors have been reluctant (or even unable) to address the political, behavioural, and cultural issues that actually shape people’s experiences with justice and security institutions. We can no longer afford to continue business as usual, now that we have recognized the importance of fostering trust and confidence between the State and society as an essential condition for peace. We know now that to realize the potential of the rule of law to prevent violence, we must look beyond technical fixes to address broader obstacles in the justice and security sectors that foster discrimination and hinder institutional responsiveness, accessibility and inclusivity. We must continue to look for technical pathways to institutional effectiveness in complex settings; but if we truly want to reduce violence and strengthen peace then we also need to pay more attention to the interface between justice and security institutions, and the people and their communities; and we need to promote positive experiences where such interaction contributes to the progressive maturing of a more inclusive social contract between state and people. At UNDP, we believe this can be done by adopting a people-centered, human rights-based approach to finding viable solutions to the problems that people experience when interacting with the justice and security institutions.

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, an unprecedented stage is now set to address violence through rule of law work. Notably, Goal 16 represents an ambitious and important departure from the MDGs with a universal commitment to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” This goal reaffirms that peace cannot be achieved where there is no rule of law. At the outset of this collective journey towards achieving this goal by 2030, we must be willing to learn from our mistakes and failures. To truly help reduce violence and prevent conflict, we must complement our support to institutions with greater efforts to empower ordinary people – particularly women – to pursue peaceful and just dispute resolution; to make legitimate demands on the state and receive redress for their grievances (including for gender-based violence); and to create a safe and stable environment in which they can build their own livelihoods. We must promote a culture of fairness and inclusivity to enable all peoples, in particular those previously marginalized, to participate in political and economic processes. And, we must redouble our commitment to rebuilding people’s trust in the state’s ability to dispense justice, provide security, respect human rights, and ultimately promote human dignity.

Alejandro Alvarez is the Team Leader of the Rule of Law, Justice, Security and Human Rights team in UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Program Support. He and his team support governments and civil society to strengthen the rule of law and human rights in 25 of the most conflict-affected and fragile countries in the world. By supporting the design, implementation and monitoring of multi-year comprehensive rule of law, justice and security programs, Mr. Alvarez and his team work with UNDP Country Offices and Regional Hubs in conflict or post-conflict environments such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and others. He is also responsible for strengthening collaboration and joint programming with other UN entities in these areas.

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