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The role of the United Nations police in preventing conflict and sustaining peace

By Assistant Secretary-General Alexandre Zouev

Policing, when undertaken within a legal framework based on the rule of law, is a core element in building peaceful and prosperous societies. As the most visible representatives of the state, the police play a key role in ensuring sustained peace and development by preventing, detecting and investigating crime, protecting persons and property, and maintaining public order and safety. Done effectively, policing is as much preventive as it is responsive, and it is central to global efforts to avert, mitigate and resolve violent conflict. In line with his “surge in diplomacy for peace” initiative, which aims to leverage the United Nations’ vast normative and policy potential to move from a culture of reaction to crises toward a culture of prevention and early action to sustain peace, the Secretary-General envisions a greater role for the United Nations police (UNPOL), as well as the other components of the Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions (OROLSI), across three dimensions of conflict prevention: operational, structural and systemic.

As to the first dimension, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical operational role of UNPOL as first responders in the face of immediate crisis. UNPOL maintain a physical presence on the ground, often in remote locations and in co-location with host-state security services. Given the immense potential for the pandemic to destabilize communities, increase criminality, endanger vulnerable populations and threaten the implementation of mandated tasks, UNPOL mobilized quickly to support host-state authorities remotely with operations and investigations, and to raise awareness among communities to prevent the spread of the virus. UNPOL also facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance in all peace operations as well as in non-mission settings such as Angola and the Maldives, where UNPOL advised national authorities on human rights and police operations amid COVID-related states of emergency.

Secondly, UNPOL implement structural prevention measures to ensure that crises do not arise in the first place or, if they do, that they do not recur. Community-oriented policing activities contribute to a better understanding of drivers of conflict by helping address potential disputes and underlying tensions before they escalate and by supporting enhanced early warning, which can clear a path for further preventive diplomacy efforts. By assisting with the reform, rebuilding and restructuring of police and other law enforcement institutions, UNPOL support host states to realize representative, responsive and accountable police services, which are crucial for managing conflict and fostering sustainable peace. In Mali, UNPOL have helped the Malian Security Forces (MSF) establish internal oversight and accountability structures, facilitated stabilization efforts by increasing the deployment of MSF personnel to the northern and central regions of the country, and provided capacity-building assistance on reform, planning, monitoring and evaluation, and oversight, in close coordination with the European Union’s civilian police mission and other partners.

Finally, through both their operational and capacity-building activities, UNPOL support systemic mechanisms to address emerging threats that transcend borders. In the Central African Republic, together with INTERPOL, UNPOL have trained internal security forces on conducting and contributing to cross-border operations and investigations, strengthening national and regional responses to trafficking and other forms of transnational organized crime. Environmental sustainability initiatives that reinforce broader efforts to address the global climate are being developed by UNPOL components at the mission level. These - include managing waste, preserving and protecting natural resources and, and reducing their environmental footprint.

Bolstering our contributions to preventing conflict and sustaining peace is the Global Focal Point for the Rule of Law (GFP), co-chaired by OROLSI and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and comprising partners throughout the United Nations system. The GFP arrangement was established to ensure comprehensive and coherent policing and other rule of law assistance and service delivery. In Haiti, for example, GFP partners have supported the Government in carrying out legal reforms by strengthening judicial institutions, improving security and access to justice for marginalized communities and increasing the capacity of the police and security sector. Critical to the further operationalization of the GFP are our standing capacities for police, justice and corrections, and DDR based in Brindisi, Italy, which can deploy rapidly to provide urgent operational or capacity-building support. By way of example, the Standing Police Capacity deployed to Malawi in 2019 to support UNDP in assessing the preparedness of the country’s police service to provide effective security during the tripartite elections.

In January 2019, the Secretary-General designated OROLSI as a United Nations systemwide service provider to ensure systematic collaboration with all relevant United Nations and external actors. The designation recognized, among other things, the increased demand for United Nations policing assistance in non-mission settings and the greater need for such services by relevant entities of the United Nations system across the peace continuum. I take every opportunity to encourage the leadership of the United Nations peace and security and development pillars to better integrate policing expertise in conflict analysis, horizon scanning and early warning processes and to take advantage of United Nations police capacities to support envoys negotiating peace agreements or supporting regional mediation and dialogue efforts.

OROLSI generally, and UNPOL specifically, are supporting Member States during this challenging time while laying the seeds for durable peace and security, in an efficient and cost-effective manner. General and specialized policing assistance provided by UNPOL, as part of the conflict prevention toolbox, is perhaps now more essential than ever, given the potential impact of the pandemic on the prospects for large-scale investment in conflict management and post-conflict recovery down the road.