Astana, 22 September 2022. In prison in Kazakhstan, prisoners are working quietly in a furniture-making workshop. Their instructor is close by, but by and large, they continue with this skilled work independently. Some of those in the workshop hope to go on to make furniture on their release, perhaps starting their own businesses; the emphasis here is on a future beyond prison, on life outside that is very different to the one they had before their imprisonment.
The workshop was established as part of a global European Union and UN System joint initiative Supporting the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons that is implemented by UNODC, UNCCT and UNCTED and co-funded by the European Union, the Netherlands and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT). The five-year initiative is now coming to an end, but its legacy across the three countries of focus – Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Uganda – is evident.
Violent extremism is a significant and growing challenge in the world today. While radicalization to violence is not a new phenomenon, it changes over time, and prisons have been identified as places of vulnerability – but also opportunity. Prisons have a crucial role in addressing violent extremism – not only ensuring the safe custody of violent extremist prisoners but preventing the spread of terrorist narratives among prisoners and preparing those convicted of violent extremist offences for their safe release. The vast majority of those in prison today will at some stage be released, re-joining communities – meaning that the rehabilitative role of prisons is not just desirable but vital.
Today (22 September 2022), officials from three beneficiary countries gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan, to share learning from the past five years of the joint initiative. Delegates from Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Uganda are joined by representatives of the project’s donors – the European Union, the Netherlands and UNOCT and those from the UN implementing partners.
The conference provides an opportunity to reflect on a key aspect of the project: collaboration. Violent extremism is not a problem that can be solved by national interventions alone, making global programmes such as this essential. The initiative has seen donors and implementing partners from multiple UN agencies, the EU and the Netherlands come together with national authorities in Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Uganda, as well as with civil society organizations from all three countries.
Mr Kestutis Jankauskas, Ambassador of the European Union to Kazakhstan, reflected on this collaboration:
“In 2020 the new Counter-Terrorism Agenda provided the foundation for EU counter-terrorism international cooperation with non-EU countries and international institutions. This project demonstrates the positive impact of collaboration, and today’s conference provides a unique opportunity for the exchange of experiences and good practices in preventing and countering radicalization to violence in prisons in different countries.”
The conference is also an opportunity to celebrate key achievements of the programme. While the focus has been on violent extremist prisoners, interventions targeting this group are far more effective when embedded in wider prison reform efforts. Speaking at the conference, UNODC’s Director, Mr John Brandolino, explained:
“Wider issues in prisons – such as poor conditions, overcrowding, under-staffing and a lack of investment in prison reform programming – all heavily undermine the capacity of prison administrations to effectively manage violent extremist prisoners. At the same time, these issues can contribute to a sense of despair and frustration among the general prison population, providing dangerous entry points for attempts to radicalize prisoners to violence. The emphasis of a more comprehensive and integrated approach is on prevention – which is better for prisoners, prison staff and the wider community alike.”
For this reason, a vital focus of the programme has been on the promotion of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or ‘the Nelson Mandela Rules’. The rules, for which UNODC is custodian, provide the universally recognized blueprint for good prison management and the treatment of all prisoners. When complied with they offer powerful barriers against violent extremism taking root in prisons, and provide a strong foundation on which effective interventions can be built. This programme has seen over 5,000 prison officers across the three countries receive training on the Nelson Mandela Rules, with positive impacts across prison life.
Dr Jehangir Khan, Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) shared his experience of the ‘All-of-UN’ approach to the programme:
“I am very proud of the partnership we have built with the UNODC and CTED, which illustrates the true value of an ‘All-of-UN approach’ to preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism. Globally, it is of critical importance that we strengthen our united efforts in this field, and reinforce resilience against radicalization to violence."
He continued: “This project not only has strategic value for Kazakhstan, Tunisia, and Uganda, but also for other countries facing similar challenges in managing and rehabilitating violent extremist prisoners.”
Looking away from the global picture and back to the furniture workshop in Kazakhstan, the impact of the programme can be felt on an individual level. Prisons are too often places of further harm rather than rehabilitation. This programme has demonstrated that collaborative efforts to build the capacity of prison services have the potential not only to ensure that all prisoners are treated with dignity, but to enhance safety and security beyond prison walls.