The importance of prevention for security policies

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Antje Niewisch-Lennartz [Sven Brauers]

“Think globally – act locally”. This well-known motto, originally coined to highlight the impact of environmental policies, urges us to take a holistic view on the global impact of local action. It can also be applied to preventive approaches to security policies, writes Antje Niewisch-Lennartz.

Antje Niewisch-Lennartz is the justice minister of Lower Saxony, a state in Northwest Germany bordering the North Sea. 

The period since the 09/11 attacks has shown that not only ecology and business have to be thought globally, but also that people and economies have to operate and circulate globally.

Ideas, ideologies and conflicts originated in some parts of the planet extend at an unprecedented pace to other regions of the world. While real-time communication on the world wide web has produced a lot of positive results, societies – notably those in Central Europe – also face new challenges that were perceived only two or even one decade ago as the sole concern of distant regions.

This is particularly evident in the phenomenon of international Islamist terrorism. Although originated in large part in predominantly Muslim regions of West Asia and North Africa, Islamism, inter alia in its violent Jihadist form, has long extended to other parts of the world, including Europe and Germany.

While it remains indispensable to understand its causes and combat it in the countries where it originates, notably by strengthening civil society, demanding the respect of human rights, and implementing cooperative foreign and security policies, it is no less important to find adequate responses to the challenges of Islamist terrorism and its underlying ideology here in Europe.

In this respect, prevention plays a critical role as a complement to repressive measures.

As its name implies, prevention aims at preventing crime and its consequences beforehand, rather than leaving it, so to speak, until the child has fallen down the well, as formulated in the 18th century by the Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria (1739-1794).

How? First and foremost, this means asking the right questions: what are the underlying causes of a phenomenon and do they suffice as an explanation? What measures can and should be taken to effectively counter these causes? In prevention terminology: What risk and protective factors contribute to the occurrence or not of a specific behaviour or a phenomenon?

This is where the motto “Think globally, act locally” comes into play.

In the context of radical Islamism, it can be understood both as a warning and a calling. It warns us that we cannot solve the problems of Western Asia or Northern Africa at a local level here in Europe even though they have a local impact on us.

And it calls us to act locally because we can influence the degree to which a global phenomenon such as radicalism impacts our local policies.

Do we allow extremists (of the Islamic or far right credence), who want to make us believe that people with different cultural or religious backgrounds or other identity markers cannot and should not live together, confuse and divide us? Or do we choose to find answers based on freedom and democracy and the belief that a life of “unity in diversity” (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716) is possible and desirable?

Discipline and punishment are part of the legitimate repertoire of a strong democracy. However, the strength of a firm democracy lies also in demonstrating that freedom, equality, solidarity and security are not mutually exclusive but interdependent. What does this mean for prevention and its importance for security policy?

In Lower Saxony, we have chosen to bring together the competences of different political departments, to coordinate them as well as possible and to expand them where most needed. As minister of justice of the Land of Lower Saxony, I am in particular responsible for designing measures aimed at de-radicalising radical Islamist prisoners.

In addition – the keywords “act locally” apply here – the State Crime Prevention Council (LPR), which forms part of the Ministry of Justice of Lower Saxony, supports the creation of local networks to prevent both Islamist radicalisation and Islamophobia.

One of their aims is to build on and strengthen existing resources on the ground. They notably encourage the participation of young people and build resilience in families, circles of friends or other acquaintances of people identified as being on a radicalisation path.

Although radicalisation is a global phenomenon, it is bred and groomed locally. Therefore, prevention must be aware of global interactions while focused on local strategies and approaches. Such an approach can serve as a model for creating democratic responses to ideologies of terror, thus responding to the population’s security needs beyond local boundaries and national borders.

The European Forum for Urban Security (Efus), which has been active for 30 years, stands for a balanced approach to security that combines prevention, sanction and social cohesion. At European level, it is an important engine for the development and coordination of local prevention strategies.

The Lower Saxony Crime Prevention Council is a long-standing member – the Council’s Executive Director, Erich Marks, has been Efus’ vice president and treasurer since 2010 – and regularly contributes to European cooperation projects tackling radicalisation and many other security issues.

I congratulate Efus for its work in the last 30 years on promoting a balanced approach to urban security, which relies in large part on co-production, i.e. cooperation among all relevant stakeholders as well as civil society.

I look forward to the productive discussions that Efus members and guests will have at the 30th-anniversary conference “Security, Democracy & Cities: Co-producing Urban Security Policies”, to be held in Barcelona, on 15-17 November.