A neighborhood’s piles of trash or high dropout rates in schools may not seem like the most obvious topics for improving justice and security. But two communities in Iraq are demonstrating that establishing real justice and security means going beyond the standard discussions.

Justice and Security Dialogue in Nepal

A neighborhood’s piles of trash or high dropout rates in schools may not seem like the most obvious topics for improving justice and security. But two communities in Iraq are demonstrating that establishing real justice and security means going beyond the standard discussions of upgrading case processing in courts, improving investigative practices, or ensuring universal access to justice and security systems. 

Effective justice and security dialogues are about building relationships and trust among a wide variety of players – community leaders and civil society groups, as well as police, judges, prosecutors, government officials, and others. The aim is to build partnerships by jointly identifying the underlying problems that cause insecurity and lack of justice, and then addressing these problems together at the neighborhood, city, regional and national levels.

Over the past two decades, the international community has erected thematic barriers and cordoned off issues into preconceived areas of focus, assuming, for example, that health concerns are distinct from justice or security challenges. When we remove these artificial barriers, we can analyze root causes of insecurity and lack of justice within communities.

In one neighborhood in Iraq, justice and security dialogues dug deeply to discover that one of the problems was unsanitary levels of trash that had piled up. The trash was both a direct source of insecurity –  it was used to cover roadside bombs – and an indirect source – the trash led to health-related deaths, in which family members and communities often retaliated against the hospital staff, leading to additional violence and crime. 

The dialogues brought members of the community together with representatives of the Department of Health, the hospital, as well as police and justice officials. As the trash piled up and wasn’t moved to properly managed dump sites, it caused illness among children, which often lead to death. It also attracted wild dogs, and bread a host of other health issues. 

In a constructive dialogue, a facilitator guides the discussion from recognizing the seriousness of the problem towards finding solutions. In the case of the trash piles in the Iraqi neighborhood, the Department of Health agreed to bring in garbage trucks to haul the debris outside the city to proper dumpsites, and community leaders began campaigns to raise awareness of the issues and urge more recycling to reduce the volume of trash.

In another example, a community dialogue addressed the critical issue of high dropout rates at local schools. The dropouts made for ripe recruits for violent extremists groups. 

When community leaders and residents were brought together with representatives from the Ministry of Education, the police, local government officials, and others, they unearthed a host of related issues. The school buildings in one neighborhood were in serious disrepair, compounded by flooding in some classrooms. Teachers were selling textbooks through the black market to the highest bidder (instead of providing them to the school children at no cost). And criminal opportunists were abducting children off the streets on their way to and from school for ransom. 

All together, these factors meant the risks of attending schools outweighed the risk of not attending school. In order to improve security – prevent children from being recruited by extremists and being kidnapped for ransom – the issues of teacher corruption, school safety, and infrastructure needed to be addressed.

Such efforts are often categorized as public health improvements, educational advancements, governance/administrative reform, or the like. But these categorizations only consider the problem in its most narrow sense rather than as a reflection of broader security threats. 

If we continue to approach justice and security threats only by looking at the symptoms – roadside bombs, targeting of police, violent extremism, prison overcrowding – the impact on overall rule-of-law and security most likely will be limited.

Instead, when communities unpack the symptoms, they come to a new truth: rule of law, justice, security, governance, public administration, economics, human rights, and conflict are intertwined. 

What examples have you seen where visible symptoms suggest deeper justice and security issues? Tell us by submitting a comment below.

Christina Murtaugh is a USIP program officer and rule-of-law facilitator for the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (inprol.org). Khitam Al-Khaghani is a USIP field officer in Iraq leading the Justice and Security Dialogue program in Iraq. 

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