The eagerly-awaited United Nations Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) is an ambitious and much-needed shift toward tackling the root causes that lead to radicalization. It is a bold strategy that combines a UN system-wide response with an “all of government approach” to violent extremism. Put simply, the Plan emphasizes the importance of prevention, the centrality of respecting human rights and the necessity of a coordinated multidisciplinary UN response.
But if it is to succeed, it will require more than a sea change in attitudes and improved coordination – though both will be essential. It will need to address the definitional issues that have long hampered an effective global response, invest in empirical research and comparative analysis to understand what works, and move beyond rhetoric to ensure that human rights are no longer trampled upon at the first sign of crisis.
The Plan contains more than 70 recommendations, including that each Member State develop a National PVE Plan of Action with UN assistance. It also makes a startling but frank admission: over the past decade, counter-terrorism efforts have mostly “overlooked” two of the four pillars of the 2006 UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, namely tackling root causes and ensuring respect for human rights and rule of law. Instead, the emphasis has been on preventing and combatting terrorism, and building countries’ capacity to combat it.
This admission is a conscious effort to retool and refocus on preventive measures for addressing violent extremism. It is also a confirmation of the need for a comprehensive approach encompassing not only essential security-based counter-terrorism measures, but also systematic preventive steps to address underlying conditions driving individuals to radicalize and join violent extremist groups.
It is a welcome reaffirmation of the centrality of human rights in any policies, strategies or actions by Member States, and indeed by the UN itself. Speaking before the UN General Assembly, the Secretary-General recognized that this is a tall order given past record. He warned that “short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”
There are four key components to the Plan.
The Plan has received quick support from advocates who have bemoaned the continued sacrificing of fundamental rights at the altar of “state security" or “national interest”. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said the Plan “constitutes an indirect call for some Arab governments and their international backers to revise their counter-terrorism and violent extremism strategies, which have demonstrated their failure over the past decade in respecting human rights as well as in preventing the proliferation of terrorism.”
Rami Khouri, director of AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, added: “When governments stifle peaceful dissent, muzzle the media, and prevent the legitimate activities of non-violent civil society organizations, they are not countering extremism; they are fomenting it.”
Respecting human rights is key to effective prevention. But how does the Plan help make this happen? The Secretary-General highlighted that national counter-terrorism strategies have often lacked basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law. “Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders,” he commented. This has led to drastically narrowed space for freedoms of expression, association and assembly. But how will the Plan change this? The problems go much deeper, including how the international community itself has violated rights in addressing violence and acts of terror.
By declaring a “war on terror,” states have blurred the distinctions between armed conflict and terrorism, between criminal law enforcement and war-related military action, and ultimately between the legal regimes of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL). Such declarations have had adverse consequences for legal safeguards and rights protections. This includes prioritizing targeted killings or assassinations over pursuing arrest; the muddying of legal status of individuals in detention; and the targeting of individuals beyond the territory of the parties to a conflict.
By declaring a “war on terror,” states have blurred the distinctions between armed conflict and terrorism, between criminal law enforcement and war-related military action, and ultimately between the legal regimes of international humanitarian law and human rights law.
Tactics of war in pursuing criminal suspects abroad have produced a number of undesirable outcomes:
Using similar logic, the Syrian regime has declared its own “war on terror”. It has barrel bombed its own citizens, bypassed judicial authorities to detain people in prolonged detention without charge, and conducted extrajudicial killings rather than arresting suspects. It has also systematically employed torture. Similar justifications are now used by every government dealing with internal violence.
Respect for rule of law and human rights are essential in any counter-terrorism strategy. The link between the violation of such rights, the grievances this creates, and radicalization that may lead to violence is a central thesis in prevention strategies. According to the Secretary-General, “Violent extremism tends to thrive in an environment characterized by poor governance, democracy deficits, corruption and a culture of impunity of unlawful behavior engaged in by the State or its agents. When poor governance is combined with repressive state policies and practices which violate human rights and rule of law, the potency of the lure of violent extremisms tends to be heightened.” But when crisis hits – such as the recent attacks in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Egypt, France, Lebanon, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia or Tunisia – security responses trump rights imperatives. The resort to language of “war” is quickly adopted and basic safeguards, which are the essence of the UN Charter, are left far behind. Are leaders who quickly adopt such rhetoric being reckless and causing more harm?
Arguing, as the Plan does, that there is a connection between successfully countering or preventing violent extremism and respecting basic human rights has not worked so far. Do politicians, policymakers and practitioners fear that respecting rights may weaken or undermine their strategies? Have advocates failed to prove irrefutably that respecting rights can be part of an effective holistic strategy? Does the problem lie in the lack of strong evidence-based data that shows respect for human rights can help decrease the risk of violent extremism? If so, where is that data being compiled and analyzed, and when will it be presented?
Framing the argument in such terms risks undermining States’ commitments that constitute the basis of what we call universal values and principles. What if research does not show a clear link between respect for rights and effective prevention? What if it actually shows the opposite? Does that make it acceptable to continue to violate rights? One would think not, but it presents a potential slippery slope. Respecting fundamental rights should not be based on arguments of effectiveness. This should come as added value, not the main reason. The Plan is silent on the challenge of marshaling empirical evidence to support the effectiveness argument. The strongest message might be moral, rather than rational: “If we become like them in order to defeat them, then they have won.”
Counter-terrorism has been a priority for the UN for decades. Eighteen legal instruments (fourteen conventions and four amendments) have come into force. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1373. There is also the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) established in 2005 to enhance coordination that now includes some 34 entities. In 2006, the General Assembly approved a “Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy”, and now there is the Plan of Action. Despite all this work, there is still no agreement. The Secretary-General told the GA in January that definitions of “terrorism” and “violent extremism” are the prerogative of Member States.
Since the 1970s, the failure to define terrorism has hindered effective global cooperation. We now have a Plan of Action that does the same with “violent extremism.” It does attempt to explain that addressing violent extremism by adopting security-based counter-terrorism measures has not worked, and tries to put distance between the two terms: “Violent extremism encompasses a wider category of manifestations,” it states, adding that relying on counter-terrorism measures may justify actions against “conduct that should not qualify as terrorist acts.” Ultimately, then, the Plan aims to pursue a “practical approach” without venturing to address questions of definition.
Why is it important to have a definition? Because in seeking a solution to a problem, it helps to understand it. Otherwise one risks prescribing the wrong remedies or wasting scarce resources on a hit-or-miss approach. Delving into the term “violent extremism,” we quickly run into a discussion about radicalization and what causes an individual to turn to violence.
The Plan ably describes some of the key drivers or “push and pull” factors that a growing consensus of analysts see as being conducive to an environment for violent extremism to take root. While we can point to a set of grievances or identity or belief issues as factors, we still do not know why only certain individuals within that society or community turn to violence or join extremist violent groups.
The reasons for radicalization are complex and local. Research has found they often converge around a combination of ideology (including religion), grievance, identity, economic factors, and the propaganda that feeds on them. But these studies are limited. We do know with some certainty that there is no straightforward link between poverty and violent extremism, unlike in civil conflict. Alexander Lee, in his 2011 study on Who becomes a Terrorist, found violent extremists tend to be “lower-status individuals from the educated and politicized section of the population.” This suggests the opportunity costs for rich individuals to join a terrorist/violent extremist organization will in most (although not all) cases be too high. The absolute poor are too disconnected from politicized social networks.
Available research also indicates that a lack of opportunities to create change through normal politics increases the chance that opposition groups will turn to terrorism. Mostly, this occurs during or shortly before and after civil wars. Only a small group will mobilize in response to an opposition group’s violent appeals. In such cases, asymmetric (terrorist) tactics are more likely to be adopted, as symmetrical conflict tactics rely on larger mobilization of supporters. Violent extremist groups mostly operate in fragile and failed states, parts of the world with the highest concentration of development and governance failures, political injustice and proxy wars.
As with civil war, financial opportunity plays a role. Successful extremist movements have been able to mobilize recruits and expand activities where resources, particularly those linked to trafficking, are easy to capture.
Good qualitative research is also available on the role of ideology and grievance, but this tends to be case- or country-specific rather than systematic in nature. We do know violent extremist movements use grievances over both global and local factors to mobilize recruits, extending from the occupation of Iraq and Palestine and the use of drone attacks to mistreatment of Muslim populations who are forcibly displaced – not only in Syria but as far afield as Myanmar.
In failing to agree on, or avoiding having, a clear definition, does the Plan risk reaching the wrong diagnosis to the problem? Could it be then prescribing the wrong medicine? It would seem that those who have worked to develop the Plan have sought to cast the diagnostic net widely to cover all eventualities. It runs the risk of hugely investing in many attractive remedies, some of which may work and others that may not.
Most country-level approaches are still evolving. On the developmental and human rights side, these include efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants through community and family oversight, and more generalized approaches aimed at bringing jobs and services into communities deemed vulnerable. Civic education and social media are also used to combat extremist messages. Important as they are, the link between such approaches and improvements in the area of PVE is not well researched (or even documented). It is not yet known under what circumstances (and in combination with what other policies) they can be effective.
It is imperative to fill gaps in the limited available empirical data and analysis. Data on terrorist attacks has not yet been analyzed in cross-country regressions using developmental variables, and public source data on recruitment is partial. Even less information is available on what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to development and access to justice policies and interventions in dealing with violent extremism. Many developmental actions that have been suggested (e.g., adopting political and economic reforms that address the frustrations of citizens) are highly compatible with long term commitments, as laid out in Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals. But evidence on how to design these efforts, as well as their prioritization, is lacking.
The struggle to prevent violent extremism is universal, given both the location of attacks and the origin of recruits and financing. Information should be more readily available for exchange on experiences and evaluation of lessons learned at the country level. Analysis drawing upon comparative experiences to develop good practices and guidelines remains a rare commodity. Unless this is given greater recognition and resource investment, the Plan risks repeating past failures in tackling root causes.
There is a need to share good practices. As States develop their National PVE plans they will need to assess the prevailing domestic conditions conducive to violent extremism while avoiding stigmatizing a particular belief, culture, ethnic group, nationality or race. Each context will be unique, but there will also be commonalities and similarities. Comparative research that analyzes what works, what does not, and why will be vital in helping develop effective plans.
The hit-or-miss approach of casting the net widely is a hugely expensive endeavor that also risks shifting resources from other worthy programs. It will likely antagonize and alienate those who do not wish to have their efforts labeled “preventing violent extremism.” The Secretary-General identified this challenge in his address to the General Assembly: “We must break down the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at the national, regional and global levels – including at the United Nations.” But how will this be done, and under what coordination mechanism?
For some this is an extension of the old Counter-Insurgency (COIN) doctrine revived this century in Afghanistan and Iraq. This “may be defined as ‘comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes”. This approach is intended to increase effectiveness by combining and coordinating security, development, humanitarian and political interventions, while ensuring that these remain within the remit of international human rights and humanitarian law. Sound familiar? The problem is that COIN approaches have also been greeted with some suspicion because of their origin from within the security forces: many development and humanitarian actors have viewed them as an attempt to co-opt development activities for short-term security goals. Such wariness, at times well-founded, has hindered partnerships from forming, preventing well-coordinated approaches, or agreed platforms or strategies, and at times led to actions that have undermined rather than reinforced separate efforts.
Until now, the debate about “siloed” approaches has also focused on the need for a new coordinating architecture. Discussions have been bogged down in institutional, budgetary and resource questions, each of course carrying political implications. The Secretary-General, in introducing the Plan of Action, has referred to his aim to create a High-Level PVE Action Group to spearhead coordinated implementation. More information will be needed to see how this Action Group can overcome historical suspicions and ensure the integrity of all its parts. It would benefit greatly if the SG ensured its leadership came from the very top of the UN, rather than from one of the competing departments, and if it placed greater value on evidence-based research and analysis.
So where do we go from here? In April the Swiss government will co-host an international conference on implementing the Plan of Action. It would be useful to reaffirm the premise that tackling violent extremism is not simply a security issue and that this approach has failed. In addition, there should be a focus on three areas: