Countering Violent Extremism: Hidden Human Rights Costs

This is a guest blog post by a student who attended this years Peace Research course at the International Summer School 2016.

This summer we witnessed a wave of terrorist attacks all around the world, from peaceful European cities to historically insecure cities in Middle East. While the increasing number of lone wolves has made it considerably more difficult for the intelligence services to predict who the next attacker would be and where the next attack would occur, it is an established fact that the majority of attackers appear to be sympathizers of one of the biggest terrorist organizations of our time, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In response to this increasing threat, many states have started addressing terrorism in a more comprehensive way by adopting new public strategies, broadly known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), that aims at dissuading extremists who have not yet succumbed to the military activities of terrorist organizations but who can be considered as active sympathizers who could potentially join the organization. However, these strategies has faced criticism both from the community targeted by these activities and also policy makers who finds them lacking strong empirical research background and bearing negative effects such as stigmatization of certain religious minorities who are permanently suspected of being vulnerable to the extremist ideologies.

In October 2015, the Human Rights Council passed the first resolution on human rights and preventing and countering violent extremism. PHOTO: U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers

On 19th February 2015, the White House held its three-day World Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) “to bring together local, federal, and international leaders to discuss concrete steps the United States and its partners can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence”. The summit focused on two issues: first, the specific issue of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) leaving their home Western Countries to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and second, the thematic issue of countering violent extremism. Although both terms have their roots in the Security Council resolution 2178 (2014), the global attention to CVE strategies mostly came about after the White House Summit and, particularly, the UN World Leaders Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in September 2015. The Summit, which was followed by a series of smaller, regional meetings, could be considered as a change in the hardline approach towards terrorism after the 9/11 attack.

In the following year, on 15 January 2016, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon introduced his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. The plan suggests seven priority areas, from conflict prevention to strengthening good governance to ensuring respect for human rights. It contains 70 recommendations for member states and regional actors to develop their localized CVE/PVE plans. It is still early to make any judgment about the UN CVE plan as it is still in its early stages, it has yet to be ratified by the General Assembly and there is no clarity about the framework in which national plans should be developed. However, many countries of the world are not completely inexperienced in implementing CVE strategies. The US, UK, Norway, Netherlands and Saudi Arabia for example have decade-long experience of implementation of their national CVE strategies.

Being a policy term, there is no consensus on the definition of CVE as different definitions are developed by several states, international organizations, NGOs, think tanks and so on for certain purposes. [1] For the purpose of my analysis, CVE would include all the programs initiated by governments and NGOs to dissuade their target audience from extremist ideologies through a wide range of activities, such as engaging in dialogue with vulnerable individuals and communities, civic education and vocational training to monitoring extremist online contents.

Evaluating the policy deficiencies of CVE is not the focus here. Since the UK launched its CVE, continuing research has been done on viability and deficiencies of CVE strategies among academics and counter-terrorism experts in think tanks and public consultancy organizations. However, less research has been done on how CVE might affect the human rights of the community it targets. Not only is addressing human rights violations a pillar in the UN Plan, but respect for human rights is also an underlying construct for other policies such as gender equality or conflict prevention. The causation between the violation of human rights of a community and violent extremism could be assessed in a broader study of structural violence in a society. However, in this blog, I would like to address some of the human rights concerns CVE and, specifically, the UN Plan, raises.

While CVE policies are supposed to contain only “soft measures”, one should not ignore the fact that the underlying foundation of these strategies is security, that their implementation is linked to counter-terrorism organs[2], and that the security approach is dominant in the practice of these organs. These aspects would become even more important when we take into account the community that the UN CVE aims to cover, which is much broader than the target community of national CVEs. Furthermore, continuous violations of human rights under the flag of CVE could, in the long term, lead to the strategy failing. Below I will discuss some of the negative impacts CVE could have from a social perspective:

  • Stigmatizing Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries

At national level, in countries where the Muslim population is a minority, application of CVE programmes could violate their human rights should they be continuously suspected of extremism. In UK and the US, there has been continuing criticism from Muslim minorities about the discriminatory CVE activities. Some Muslims find them stigmatizing and claim that the strategies split their community into good and secular Muslims and bad Muslims.

For example, in July 2015, US Air Force Research Laboratory re-published a policy paper called “Countering Violent Extremism: Scientific Methods and Strategies,”. It claims that a hijab is considered both a symptom of Salafi proliferation and a catalyst for Islamism, and that it could contribute to the idea of passive terrorism, which occurs when moderate segments of the population decline to speak against or actively resist terrorism. In UK, in January 2016, Prime Minister David Cameroon suggested that language classes for Muslim women could help stop radicalization. He emphasized that “some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the men haven’t wanted them to speak English”. Many observers have criticized Cameroon’s hasty and unfounded comment. For example, Shaista Gohohir, chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK smartly commented that: “People learning English is a good thing, so they know their rights and can participate in society. Cameron says he wants to empower Muslim women. But what about Muslim women who already speak English and still face barriers to participation?”

Building such a narrative in society could, in the long term, lead to cultural horizontal inequality, which in turn could cause people to claim that for security reasons a certain minority, or at least part of it, should be under permanent surveillance.

  • Political abuse of CVE in Muslim-majority countries and theocratic regimes

The issue of stigmatization is not confined to non-Muslim countries. In Muslim majority countries/theocratic Muslim regimes, vesting broad power by UN to states to develop their own national CVE plans would undoubtedly result in an uncontrollable wave of human rights abuses rooted in the Shia-Sunni divide supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia in Middle East and North Africa. The non-democratic structures and reluctance to share power in these countries is the hidden reason for many so-called “soft” measures against those religious minorities opposing discriminatory policies. Therefore, through UN authorization, it would be quite easy for countries with complex theocratic power structure to label the Shia or Sunni political activists as those who have deviated from the state-sponsored religious ideology and need “help” in finding the “right path”.

To make an example, in 2004 Saudi Arabia launched its CVE strategy called PRAC which stands for “Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare”. It is a campaign supplementing military counter-terrorism and aims at combating “corrupted and deviant interpretations of Wahhabi Islam”. PRAC does not rely on democratic values but on the Saudi-sponsored ideology of Islam and the “Da’wah”, the obligation of citizens toward their governments.  It is being done through reaffirmation of “state authority by placing it in the context of Islam and obedience to leadership”. On the other side of story, Iran’s already uneasy relations with its Sunni minorities can be worsened under the flag of CVE.

  • Increased surveillance and violation of the right to freedom of expression

Being a “soft” security strategy, CVE could be used as an informant system by which states would have access to information of individuals and communities participating in CVE activities, and then increase their surveillance of them. Legitimizing such a practice, in long term, could have deteriorating effects on thefreedom of expression of individuals in the society.

For example, online content which criticizes the political regimes or foreign policy of governments could be removed on the basis that it will promote extremism directly or indirectly. Governments would seek to enlist private internet providers to monitor content, pick those that are likely to contribute to extremism, remove them and report them to the intelligence agencies. For example, the UK government has given broad authority to Internet Service Providers (ISP) and social media platform-led initiatives to take down “extremist” accounts based on their discretion and without executive or judicial permission. The Guardian, in an article on 5 May 2016, revealed how one of the so-called private communications agencies called Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu) which monitors online conversations among “vulnerable communities”, is in close relations with different government agencies, receives funds from them, and promotes the UK government’s propaganda without disclosing these facts to the public.

Another issue of concern is that by giving all the public activities a CVE flavor, there is a risk of spreading distrust in society by creating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to report on each others’ activities and opinion. For example, under the UK Prevent Strategy, teachers, NHS staff and even social workers have a new legal duty to have ‘’due regard to prevent people from being drawn to terrorism’’. In the long term, this could have a negative impact on the right to freedom of expression.

  • Secularizing religious minorities, restricting religious education

In November 2015, The UK Department for Education called for evidence to inform the development of the government’s proposals for requiring certain out-of-school education settings to register and be subject to risk-based inspections to ensure that children and young people are not exposed to extremist views. In response, several organizations and individuals issued a joint statement calling the proposal an attack on the independence of religious schools and in violation of UK tradition not to regulate religious practices. The result would be that a single standard narrative of for example Islam and what constitutes being a good citizen is defined by the government and that anyone who opposes this narrative in schools, universities, media and so on, even in a completely non-violent way, can be labelled as persona non grata. This is what Peter Oborne in an interview with Guardian calls “Soft apartheid against Muslims” and that UK-created concept of non-violent extremism is a new idea of a “thought crime”.

Similarly, in November 2015, FBI operated a website called “Don’t be a puppet” which teaches teachers and students about the process of becoming a violent extremist through a series of game-like graphics. The game basically repeats the same simple-minded narrative that the US government is trying to establish in its CVE campaign inside US and globally. The website was put on hold for a week due to sensitive reactions from community leaders in a meeting the FBI had with some of them. Talking to the Washington Post, Hoda Hawa, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council said: “It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought, and students as well.”

Furthermore, by looking closely at these public policies, it is not far from reality to say that these governments are criminalizing many perspectives which cannot be defined as illegal under their penal laws and in this way, they are infringing upon the right to freedom of speech, a right which is enshrined in their constitution.  The question remains to be answered: is it even legitimate to manipulate the beliefs of a community based on the assumption that they are vulnerable to extremism?

  • Should the UN set aside its CVE strategy?

It appears that UN CVE repeats the same obligations that states already are bound to. There is no doubt that states are already committed to promote engagement of different communities, that they should respect the human rights of their citizens and provide employment opportunities to women and youth. One may ask what is the use of labeling already-binding commitments as CVE?

Furthermore, we might be convinced that the policy and human rights deficiencies of CVE would lead to repercussion of violent extremism in response, resulting in the total failure of the strategy. Nevertheless, renewing these commitments and allocating more funds to implementation of them could be considered as a positive sign. Particularly, focusing on the empowerment of deprived communities through provision of development aid by national and international entities could be an important step for narrowing the gaps that has appeared as a result of years of exclusion from social and political power in non-democratic countries.

Despite the positive aspects of the UN plan, a strong framework for protection of human rights of the community it targets is lacking. The fact that the UN has shown a white flag to states who develop their localized CVE strategies could lead to undesirable results both for international security and human rights. Incorporating a strong protection policy in the UN plan in cooperation with the relevant UN bodies and experts is of high significance in this regard. For example, Resolution 1618, which was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011, could be a good starting point for developing the protection framework. The resolution calls upon all member states to foster religious freedom and pluralism, to ensure religious minorities are properly represented, and to consider adopting measures to criminalize incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief. However, religious intolerance is only part of the problem. Stigmatization of a community is not only about religious intolerance but their broader social status.

Furthermore, using the capacity of Human Rights Council and its special rapporteurs to address the human rights concerns rising from national CVEs could be also helpful. Last February, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism in his report to the Human Rights Council warned about the conceptual vagueness in the UN plan and the negative impact the strategy could have on the human rights of the target community and recommended the UN to have a more clear definition of the term in its future work on the issue and avoid from broad-brush ‘securitization’ of human rights, international development, humanitarian assistance, education and community integration.

Making on-time and well-taught reforms in UN Plan requires more contribution by civil society actors, academics and researchers and, of course, those governments which look for unity in their societies rather than alienating certain communities. Reviewing national CVEs to make sure that they comply with international human rights standards is as important as countering extremism. Especially now that the UN plan is still on hold by the General Assembly for deeper review, there is still time to prevent, as Naz Modirzadeh says, an already-broken system of counter-terrorism from becoming more destructive.

[1] UK Prevent Strategy defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” and, in a not very rational statement, it adds “we also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”. US CVE Strategy takes a more practical approach defining CVE by the activities it might involve saying “CVE refers to efforts focused on preventing all forms of ideologically based extremist violence, to include prevention of successful recruitment into terrorist groups.” Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United.

[2] For example, UN Counterterrorism Task Force is responsible for developing the UN CVE agenda and US Department of Homeland Security is the focal point for US CVE strategy.

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