Iraq, December 2022 – The positive and vital role played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is well recognized in areas including health, the environment, human rights, and social services. NGOs can also increase the efficacy and transparency of governmental efforts. The challenges faced by Iraq have provided space for NGOs, both national and international, to become major actors in the protection and development of society.
The work of NGOs in prisons includes the development of new skills for prisoners by improving access to education and training; providing legal aid; and enhancing health services. Accordingly, NGOs can support the management of prisoners by targeting and reducing gaps that occur due to limited human and financial resources in the prison system.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is a longstanding active participant in the global fight against terrorism. The mandate of UNODC Iraq, under its Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) in Detention Program, encompasses the enhancement of the capacity of prison administrations to deliver inter-disciplinary disengagement interventions for foreign terrorist fighter prisoners and violent extremist offenders. The FTF programme is funded by the U.S. government and delivered under the UNODC Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa.
The programme recognizes that communication and coordination between NGOs and governmental authorities is essential to ensure interventions implemented by NGOs are in line with government priorities. Additionally, coordination among the NGOs themselves is required to ensure efforts are complementary, minimizing the risk of duplication.
In recognition of the importance of effective coordination, in December 2022 UNODC conducted two workshops through the FTF programme, bringing together national and international NGOs involved in delivering services to terrorist and FTF detainees and prisoners with prison and corrections staff, to facilitate dialogue.
The first meeting, conducted on 4 December 2022 in Erbil, comprised of NGOs active in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It was attended by six national NGOs and two international NGOs, together with representatives of the Reformatory Directorate (the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Independent Human Rights Association and the Ministry of Justice) from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The NGOs presented detailed overviews of their activities in the correction system covering areas from legal aid for prisoners, educational support, and training for correctional staff to psychological and mental support.
Mr. Hogr Chato from Public Aid Organization stated, “Involving all stakeholders in developing a strategic vision to enhance the correctional system is essential. All governmental authorities and non-governmental organizations should unite their efforts in dealing with detained and convicted terrorists. A strategy to ensure the sustainability of coordination and cooperation is required and the meeting conducted by UNODC is considered the first step.”
The second meeting, conducted on 5 December 2022 for national and international NGOs active in the central and southern parts of Iraq (Federal Iraq) included federal government representatives from the Reformatory Directorate (Ministry of Justice; Public Relations Department of the Ministry of Justice; the committee responsible for implementing Counter Violent Extremism strategy at the National Security Advisory; and the Counter Terrorist Section at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Again, the NGOs gave detailed overviews of their activities and goals. These included, but were not limited to, training correctional staff; distribution of aid to prisoners; the provision of legal aid; and supporting families of detainees affiliated with terrorist acts.
Mr. Ahmed Al-Musawi, the general coordinator of the Iraqi Human Rights Watch Association, praised the meeting, saying, “I appreciate the efforts of UNODC, the National Security Agency, and the committee that is responsible for implementing Counter Violent Extremism strategy for their cooperation and active work with NGOs, the international community, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Justice and others that are involved in human rights in prisons and detention facilities. The meeting focused on the importance of technical support and close coordination and cooperation in the human rights field. We are working together to enhance national capacities and strengthen the commitment to and respect for human rights and law.”
Mrs. Alyaa Al-Anssari, Head of Bint Al-Rafidain Organization, an organization active in supporting women and juvenile prisoners, explained, “The conditions of prisons in Iraq in general, and the conditions of female prisoners, continue to suffer from gaps, so it is important to intensify international and national efforts to reform this reality. This is what happened in the meeting that was held by UNODC, which brought together relevant government institutions and civil society organizations with a group of international experts and workers in this field. There is a long and arduous journey ahead for everyone: the international community, the government with its institutions and legislation, and civil human rights organization. Despite difficulties, I am sure of achieving successes.”
During both meetings, NGOs and governmental authorities exchanged experiences, challenges and recommendations on improving the correctional system. The meetings succeeded in establishing an effective dialogue, ensuring that governmental authorities are aware of the needs and realities of the NGOs actively involved in supporting the system.
A consensus arose amongst participants that in order to build upon the achievements of the meetings and cement the long-term sustainability of communication and coordination among the NGOs and governmental authorities, a network of NGOs would be established. In support of this initiative, the UNODC FTF Programme in Iraq agreed to provide funding to support the legal establishment of this network and support its activities.
UNODC’s work in Iraq contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 16 – 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.’ Through our close work with local authorities, we aim to strengthen Iraq’s institutional capacity to address the security needs posed by terrorist and FTF prisoners, through enhanced dynamic security skills, new equipment, and security upgrades.