Advancing justice and corrections in conflict regions through the Rule of Law

// Interview: Alexandre Zouev

Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions, United Nations 

JT: What are the key points of UN peace operations’ work in advancing Justice and Corrections in crisis-affected settings and which success stories can you refer to, more specifically?

AZ: Peace can only be built upon a foundation of Justice and respect for the Rule of Law. Strengthening the Rule of Law is essential for building and sustaining peace in any type of environment but especially in crisis-affected settings. Improved security, stabilisation and restoration of state authority requires effective and accountable justice and correctional institutions.

Criminal justice institutions can play a central role in the protection of civilians by helping to reduce the threat of spoilers from armed groups and prevent a relapse into conflict. Since 2012, Rule of Law work and UN Peace Operations have benefited from the engagement of multiple partners, under the Global Focal Point (GFP) arrangement for police, justice and corrections.

The GFP is a United Nations platform, co-chaired by my Office and by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), designed to strengthen the provision of Rule of Law systems, address and prevent violent conflict, protect human rights and restore justice and security for conflict-affected populations. The platform enables all participating United Nations entities – including UNDP, UN Women, OHCHR, UNHCR, and UNODC – to pursue shared objectives while respecting and leveraging individual mandates, capacities and comparative advantages.

Examples of success span several areas, including in promoting accountability for serious and conflict-related crimes: in the Central African Republic (CAR), MINUSCA’s police, justice and corrections experts –along with other GFP partners – jointly support the restoration of criminal justice and security institutions, including the operationalisation of a Special Criminal Court (SCC).

The SCC is a national court composed of both national and international magistrates, with jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute atrocity crimes. The SCC is at a critical phase. The first tranche of investigators, prosecutors and judges have been appointed; the rules of procedure and evidence have been adopted; strategies on prosecution and witness protection are being developed, and investigations have commenced. These efforts support the extension of State authority, the fight against impunity and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The SCC is helping to solidify regional support for accountability mechanisms for atrocity crimes.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, GFP partners’ assistance to the Prosecution Support Cells (PSCs) has accelerated trials in the military justice system. The assistance of the PSCs has resulted in the conviction of 990 perpetrators; a total of 1,726 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were registered and 643 judgments have been delivered, resulting in the conviction of senior militia members for rape and sexual slavery.

In Mali, GFP partners are jointly implementing programmes in support of the extension of State authority in the North and are addressing conflict drivers through strengthening the Rule of Law. With our support, the Ministry of Justice adopted priorities essential for justice reforms outlined in the peace agreements, critical for the government’s ability to coordinate bilateral and multilateral support to the justice sector.

New areas of engagement include the operationalisation of a national specialised unit on terrorism and transnational organised crime, the appointment of prosecutors and investigative judges, the nomination of special investigation officers, and specialised training in these areas.
Regarding prison support in CAR, MINUSCA is supporting the demilitarisation of prisons and the creation of a civilian prison service as part of an overall strategy to enhance public safety and to ensure the secure and humane custody of detainees, including those detained for serious crimes.

Sixty-eight specialised government-provided corrections personnel are currently authorised to mentor and train prison staff, helping to prevent the escape of high-profile detainees who are potential spoilers to a fragile peace. The number of prison escapees, including high-profile detainees, decreased from 843 in 2015 to about 132 since the beginning of 2017 [Figures as of January 2018].

MINUSMA (our Mission in Mali) has assisted the national authorities in preventing the spread of violent extremism in prisons by providing a package of measures for the rehabilitation of two high-security wings in the main prison, in Bamako (where those suspected of committing terrorism-related crimes are held). MINUSMA has also provided Malian Prison personnel with specialised training on prison security and on identifying radicalisation and managing violent extremist prisoners.


“Peace can only be built upon a foundation of
Justice and respect for the Rule of Law.

JT: Speaking of radicalisation and violent extremism, how is this issue being addressed in the scope of UN peace operations?

AZ: Violent extremism and radicalisation leading to violence are a special and very serious concern to the United Nations. We must recognise that under-resourced prison systems, high rates of prolonged and sometimes arbitrary detention as well as poor and often abusive prison conditions, can act as a catalyst for radicalisation, while simultaneously presenting significant obstacles to counter-interventions.

I can mention research studies, in the Middle East and North Africa, that interviewed foreign terrorist fighters and members of violent extremist groups. Anecdotal evidence pointed to a large share of young people being radicalised in prisons, detention centres, camps and even in some educational institutions and not necessarily in rural, remote, poor areas. There is a wrong public stereotype that most of the young people are being radicalised because of poverty, in mosques and by imams who hold very radical views.

During my time in Central Asia, for example, I learnt that the appropriate management of violent extremist prisoners and the protection of young prisoners is an important issue. We often witnessed that when religiously indoctrinated adult prisoners were housed with young prisoners, first-time offenders and typically foot soldiers of some terrorist groups, the influence of the adult prisoners was counterproductive to our deradicalisation efforts.

But at the same time, prisons present a unique environment and opportunity for positive change; violent extremist messages can be countered in a controlled environment. Intelligence gathering, within the prison, could be a great source of critical information. Prisons may also offer catalysts for reintegration, through education and vocational training. Safeguards need to be put in place to prevent the spread of violent extremist ideologies to other prisoners while upholding the protections afforded under international law to persons deprived of their liberty (such as with respect to identification and separation, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, if appropriate).

Our components in the field typically explore strategies with national counterparts to address violent extremism in three overarching categories: 1) disengagement (e.g., behavioural change, such as renouncing the use of violence as a tool to achieve objectives); 2) reintegration through pre- and post-prison release (e.g., engagement of community to support prisoner release programmes); and 3) the reduction of the risk of radicalisation of other prisoners (e.g., protection measures such as risk assessment and separation measures). We note, however, that any prison-related activity will be influenced by mission mandates, national priorities and the capacity of national prison services to sustain such activities.

We are collaborating very closely with our contributing countries, donors, Member States, political supporters of the Rule of Law, and others. A key example: with the support of the Swedish Prison and Probation Service and with the significant and strategic engagement of a highly respected NGO in Baidoa, Somalia, our Mission, UNSOM, developed an innovative programme to support the disengagement and reintegration of Al-Shabaab prisoners back into their respective communities.

The project explored issues of prisoner classification, sentence planning, and pre- and post-release community support. The “High-Risk Prisoner Rehabilitation Programme” was the first of its kind in a United Nations peace operation and has been used by academic and substantive experts to evaluate such support for the reintegration of violent extremist prisoners. Currently, the programme is in its third phase with a focus on community support and supervision for those who have been released. The lessons learned will form an element of our guidance to other peace operations that are dealing with a similar high-risk prisoner profile.


“The most effective way to promote compliance with the Mandela and the Bangkok Rules is to ensure that they’re embedded into all aspects of our work.

JT: To what extent do the UN peace operations promote compliance with the Mandela and the Bangkok Rules?

AZ: We must ensure that all prisoners are protected from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Both the Mandela and Bangkok Rules are very interdependent and have become the standards for all initiatives in UN peace operations in the scope of Corrections.

In our view, the most effective way to promote compliance with the Mandela and the Bangkok Rules is to ensure that they’re embedded in all aspects of our work. Prison-support policies prioritise the thematic areas of correctional engagement in peacekeeping, which are intended to strengthen national capacity to ensure safe, secure and humane prisons. The premise of each thematic area is the implementation of human rights standards in complex and under-resourced environments.

We work in collaboration with various UN agencies definitely with the OHCHR, but also with UNODC, UNDP as well as various NGOs, to raise awareness of the Mandela and Bangkok Rules among our national counterparts in host countries and within civil society. We also take every opportunity to advocate for the implementation of these human rights standards in our international circles at conferences and workshops as part of our approach to responsible prison management.

These human rights standards also establish the foundation of the pre-deployment training and in-Mission training for United Nations government-provided corrections personnel (GPP). This training is intended to equip GPP with the knowledge and skills to support national prison authorities to understand the strategic and operational elements of the standards, increase political will for their implementation, and to work within existing national legislation to apply the principles of these standards in order to protect the rights and dignity of detainees, prisoners and prison personnel.

Justice and correctional systems are very under-resourced, and not only in developing countries and or conflict regions. It has to do not only with budget allocations – which, in many cases, are insufficient – but also the lack of adequate training and selection of prison officers and the lack of compliance with internationally recognised human rights and humanitarian law standards. Our corrections personnel work with national prison services on finding creative approaches to working within these parameters to better achieve compliance with international human rights standards in prisons.


“Justice and correctional systems are very under resourced, and not only in developing countries and or conflict regions.

JT: Please tell us more about the Government-Provided Personnel and how they serve UN peace operations.

AZ: Member States provide significant support by seconding qualified justice, police and corrections experts to serve as GPP with United Nations peace operations.

GPP represent approximately 80% of the corrections personnel in UN peace operations and 15% of the justice personnel. The availability of highly qualified national experts for service as GPP strongly impacts our capacity to deliver on mandated tasks.

An example of where the GPP modality has been critical is the DRC, where our mission – MONUSCO – has established Prosecution Support Cells, comprised of justice and policing experts provided by the Member States. These officers bring extensive expertise in the areas of investigation, prosecution and adjudication of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations, including of a sexual nature. Through the provision of advice and mentoring, they support national justice experts in the processing of the most serious crimes with a direct impact on peace, security, and stability.

I would like to call upon readers, especially those who work for their national justice, police or prison services, to ask their institutions about possibilities for deployment as GPP to UN peace operations.


JT: Surely, OROLSI’s mission could not be successful without help from partners. Who are those partners?

AZ: Yes, in fact, the success and sustainability of UN peacekeeping efforts hinge on strategic partnerships. Our primary partnership is with the national authorities who retain ultimate ownership of any initiatives designed to support their police, justice and corrections institutions.

Our main role is to build the capacities of national partners in order to support meaningful, legitimate and sustainable progress. However, while this is the most critical of our partnerships, it can also be the most delicate and challenging to establish and maintain.

The Global Focal Point (GFP) platform has increased UN coherence in the Rule of Law sector by aligning strategies/programmes with national development plans and serving as a single entry-point for host governments. Through joint assessments, planning, and programming, the GFP arrangement has increased impact and results by reducing competition, leveraging expertise and encouraging innovation.

The Group of Friends of Corrections is a Member States-driven initiative that supports the work of corrections in UN peace operations, both politically and substantively. The Group educates, advocates and supports the role of corrections in sustaining peace and security among the Member States and within various committee discussions in NY. This engagement has directly impacted on mandated language in various Security Council resolutions and secured necessary resources and programmatic funding for corrections initiatives. More substantively, national prison services from these Member States have actively supported our work with concrete initiatives such as corrections-specific assessment missions in CAR, and the development and delivery of specific training initiatives (such as prison leadership and gender-sensitive prison management programmes).

NGOs (international and national) are another significant partner in the corrections sector; examples include the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médicins sans Frontières, International Development Law Organisation and Penal Reform International (PRI).

National NGOs are particularly effective given their understanding of local customs, politics, culture and language, whereas PRI is a particularly strong advocate for implementation of the Mandela and Bangkok Rules. MINUSCA recently partnered with PRI to draft the prison service “demilitarisation” strategy. The draft was completed in September 2018 and will soon be presented to the CAR President for promulgation. This strategy constitutes the short-term and long-term road map for the development of the CAR prison service.


JT: Are there particular justice or corrections-related projects for which OROLSI requires support?

AZ: Our Justice and Corrections Service (JCS) seeks donor support to fund several initiatives, including projects to: strengthen the effectiveness and impact of justice and corrections endeavours by way of a lesson learned study (subject to be disclosed); strengthen the quality of justice and corrections Government-Provided Personnel; enhance the capacity of peace operations in support of criminal accountability for serious crimes (including through more rapid deployments of specialised expertise to national accountability mechanisms); and, support the development of Standard Operating Procedures on detention and management of high-risk prisoners, including violent extremists and other high-profile persons, to 1) strengthen the capacity of UN peace operations to securely manage high-risk individuals at the point of their apprehension by UN police and military; and 2) support national prison authorities to manage high-profile persons.


Alexandre Zouev joined the United Nations in 1990 and has served with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). From June 2016 until assuming his current role in April 2017, he was the Global Programme Manager and Special Adviser on Prevention of Violent Extremism with UNDP. Before that, he was the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Tajikistan between 2011 and 2016. Mr Zouev holds a Ph.D. in Development Economics from Moscow State Institute and has written numerous books and articles on the social and economic aspects of development.

Like / Share:
More stories
The Hidden Epidemic: Organised Crime in Prisons and the Threat to Societal Safety