Blog February 28, 2024

Breaking the Cycle: Embracing Preventative Justice to Curb Global Violence

By Stacey Cram
  • Justice
  • Pathfinders

by Stacey Cram, non-resident fellow, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation

We are witnessing historic increases in global violence. 238,000 people died in global conflict in 2022, and last year, more civilians were killed or injured by airstrikes or artillery than in any since 2010. Despite these unacceptable increases, an estimated 80-90 percent of violence typically occurs outside of armed conflicts. Annually, homicide results in 475,000 deaths, with the majority of cases going unsolved. Hundreds of millions more victims of physical assault, sexual violence, elder abuse, and child neglect are left without justice. The consequences of these harms ripple through communities, creating cycles of trauma, fear, and mistrust that perpetuate inequality.

It may seem difficult to envision halving global violence by 2030, something the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General called an “achievable goal.” Recent events have underscored this challenge, with dozens massacred in Papua New Guinea over land disputes, a 22-year-old Indian farmer killed when police targeted crop pricing demonstrations, and US judges reporting a record number of violent threats related to political violence. Rather than resigning to this grim reality, we must recognize that ending violence is not an insurmountable task but a challenge that demands solutions.

This week, global experts will come together at the World Bank’s Fragility Forum to examine such solutions.

While significant energy must be directed towards populations impacted by conflict, now is also the time to focus on interpersonal violence and its root causes. One proven solution lies in embracing preventative justice measures that are people-centered.

The forthcoming Flagship Report of the Halving Global Violence Task Force underscores the importance of addressing violence outside of conflict zones and notes that this type of violence can indeed be substantially reduced. The Task Force finds the best violence prevention strategies are networked, coordinating action across sectors, and involve stakeholders from all levels, from transnational law enforcement units to grassroots community leaders. Access to justice is identified as indispensable since it “offers an alternative to resolving personal and political disputes through violence, and provides support to victims.” It does not bode well that 1.5 billion people have justice problems they cannot resolve.

For too long, justice actors’ role in addressing violence has been focused on reactive measures, such as law enforcement and criminal justice interventions. By the time law enforcement becomes involved, the opportunity to prevent violence is missed. “Tough on crime” approaches have led to increases in violence, alongside an explosion in imprisonment that has “done more harm than good.”

Proactive alternatives that address the underlying factors that contribute to violence before it occurs and increase access to justice yield better results.

Preventative justice takes a holistic view, targeting risk factors such as inequality, social exclusion, unemployment, and harmful use of alcohol. People-centered initiatives are designed and implemented with communities most affected by violence, solving justice needs at the source and pushing for systemic reforms.

I grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, a city historically referred to as the murder capital of Europe in a country that 20 years ago, the UN called the “most violent in the developed world.” After committing to treating violent crime as a social and public health challenge in 2005, Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit focused on community and youth work, education, and social services. Within a decade, homicide rates dropped by 41 percent. By 2023, violence fell to the lowest level in 50 years.

Similarly, in Palmira, Colombia, after data revealed that half of the homicides were young people concentrated in a few neighborhoods, the city adopted its PAZOS prevention strategy to enhance opportunities, support emotional well-being, redesign the relationship between young people and law enforcement, and increase access to justice through transparent proceedings. Homicide levels have dropped to the lowest levels in 17 years.

A key principle of preventative justice is early intervention, identifying individuals and communities at risk of violence, and providing them with necessary support, including legal knowledge and tools. Atieno Odhiambo from the Legal Empowerment Fund explains that “when people are empowered with knowledge of their rights and legal mechanisms, they are better equipped to address grievances, resolve disputes, and prevent potential violations and violence before they escalate into larger issues.”

For example, in Brazil, Themis community paralegals (“Promotoras Legais Populares”) offer specialized support to prevent femicide. Their PLP 2.0 mobile app allows vulnerable women to directly alert police if threatened and provides authorities with immediate documentation of their protective order. In spite of being at the highest risk, no user of PLP 2.0 has died, with users feeling safer and changes in aggressor behavior reported. When more than half of homicides of women are committed by an intimate partner or family member, such solutions must be bolstered. Preventing domestic violence can also end the cycle of children who witness domestic violence becoming victims or perpetrators later in life.

In Cameroon, the Centre pour l’Environnement et le Développement (Centre for the Environment and for Development) uses legal empowerment to prevent land-based conflict. Communities are supported to understand laws and report when rights are violated. Community demands are agreed through collective dialogue, and where appropriate, communities who have previously been in conflict are brought together to partake in shared advocacy around common goals. Finally, community members are trained to monitor companies’ compliance with contractual obligations to prevent injustices, such as encroachment, that lead to violence.

When communities work alongside institutions to address systemic injustices, outcomes go beyond violence reduction, fostering a wider culture of trust.

Margaret Satterthwaite, UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, argues that communities who understand how to use legal processes are “pulled into a more deeply democratic relationship with the state.” A breakdown in trust between citizens and the government is a driver of violence expected to worsen due to the unprecedented number of elections this year. Supporting interventions that strengthen trust is more critical than ever.

Additionally, investing in preventative justice yields significant returns.  Estimates put the costs of interpersonal violence at 10 percent of our world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).* Preventing injustices can generate substantial savings. Justice actors who proactively reduce the number of disputes see healthcare and crime-related costs reduced. Furthermore, approaches that tackle systemic injustices, such as land disputes, can reduce the number of legal problems for an entire population, leading to higher rates of social cohesion and economic activity.

For those attending the Fragility Forum, it is crucial to recognize preventative justice’s role in reducing violence. Those involved in national prevention strategies should consider how they can support justice actors to assist and integrate people-centered justice policies. The World Bank should assist countries to better understand the root causes of violence and injustice through more robust data collection on violence and access to justice in country strategy assessments, including in countries ostensibly “at peace,” and by helping countries design data diagnostic systems.

In the immediate term, providing financial support to local actors who prioritize legal empowerment and people-centered justice as part of violence reduction is imperative. By investing in measures that target the root causes of violence and promote social inclusion, donors can play a crucial role in supporting strategies that yield results outside of electoral cycles, reduce the trauma and horrors inflicted on communities, and make a meaningful contribution to building more peaceful and just societies.

*Forthcoming taskforce report 

Related Resources