Earlier this week, the UN hosted a high level meeting in response to President Obama’s call for a new strategy to “combat violent extremism.” As Syrian refugees flee to Europe in unprecedented numbers, the need for better strategies is more urgent than ever. In response, Obama has rightfully focused on the role of moderate voices and respect for the rule of law in combatting terrorism and violent extremism. As he recently explained, “[w]hen peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer.”
Given this warning, it is alarming to note the ever-shrinking space for civil society worldwide. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit-Law, more than 90 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly have been passed in the past three years. These have been accompanied by campaigns of harassment and criminal prosecutions against civil society leaders that have shut down pro-rights and democracy activities in every region of the world. The United States Institute of Peace has referred to it as a “crisis” of shrinking civil society space.
Even more striking in this context is the current trend among nations, including key US allies, to cite national security in their dramatic crackdown on opposition voices and reformers from within their own societies. Ethiopian journalists reporting on government corruption are accused of attempting to overthrow the state. A Saudi lawyer calling for reform of the criminal justice system is the first to be convicted under a new counter-terrorism law. Kenyan groups who document security force brutality are arbitrarily designated terrorist organizations. Marginalized communities in Peru protesting controversial natural resource extraction are treated as combatants. A Malaysian lawyer who questions the utility of a government de-radicalization program is charged with sedition. And Chinese attorneys are detained for representing government critics.
Never before have we seen such wide-scale retaliation against civil society, and in a growing number of countries, there is a possibility that calls for good governance could be completely silenced. If it is true that lack of avenues for peaceful redress of grievances feed extremism, then the stifling of such avenues should prompt serious concern about our safety.
Obama’s efforts to promote good governance as an antidote to the spread of violent extremism was reportedly met with skepticism. This is no doubt due in part to the fact that the United States government vocally supports many of these advocates, but too often ignores the plight of others in the name of short-term political expedience. For example, the State Department issues a report every year that admirably documents human rights abuses around the world but a cursory review shows differential treatment of key allies. Obama issued a directive on security assistance calling for restraint where such assistance would associate the United States with repressive regimes, but arms exports worth billions of dollars continue to such governments.
At this week’s high level meetings and side events to the UN General Assembly, the administration had the opportunity to again engage with counterparts in governments from around the world. Many of these governments have committed to countering violent extremism while targeting the peaceful organizations that are providing alternatives. Unless Obama’s call for greater efforts to counter the propaganda of violent extremism is accompanied by consistent support for the rule of laws at the highest levels of our government, his soaring rhetoric may fall on deaf ears. As they say, “action is eloquence.”
Brittany Benowitz directs an international program that provides pro bono legal assistance to human rights advocates facing retaliation. She previously served as a national security advisor to Sen. Russ Feingold. The views expressed herein are her own.