The U.N. Needs Help Sustaining the Global Approach to Violent Extremism

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently took three steps to strengthen the architecture for preventing targeted violence and terrorism within the United States. The first is the creation of a $35 million multi-disciplinary research consortium based at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The second is an expanded office to “equip and empower local efforts — including peers, teachers, community leaders, and law enforcement — to prevent individuals from mobilizing to violence before it becomes a law enforcement matter.” And, just this week, DHS announced a $10 million grant program to support these local efforts.

None of these initiatives, despite being replete with the references to “violent extremists,” uses the CVE (countering violent extremism) or P/CVE (preventing and countering violent extremism) acronyms most commonly found in this space, possibly because of the Trump administration’s aversion to methodologies used by its predecessor and/or because those terms were perceived by some in the United States as being too narrowly focused on Jihadi-inspired violence. But these developments reflect the extent to which both CVE and P/CVE, and prevention in particular, have gained traction over the past decade, whether in the United States or dozens of countries around the globe, to address terrorist and violent extremist threats.

Yet, despite this plethora of new P/CVE policies, programs, and platforms, the opportunity for governments around the globe to discuss and analyze how they have been implemented and how — or how well — they work has been elusive, except among largely “like-minded” groups of countries such as within the European Union or among the “Five Eyes.” There are few opportunities for regular, systematic exchanges among governments and other stakeholders about the progress and challenges countries face in P/CVE, and especially of the sensitive subject of government actions that harm, rather than help, the cause.

The increasing acceptance of the preventative approach is evidenced by the ways in which the approach to addressing violent extremist threats have evolved. The international focus at the time was primarily on a traditional, predominantly reactive, security response focused on capturing and killing terrorists, prosecuting them, cutting off their finances, and eliminating their safe havens. Today, both the United States and the international community are placing increased attention on preventive measures involving a broader array of actors — educators, psychologists, and community-based organizations, for example — to address the reasons why (mainly) young people are susceptible to recruitment and radicalization to violent extremism.

Even as the focus a decade ago was on security efforts, authorities did begin to develop what was called  a “whole of government” approach to the problem, including by finding ways to get more national-level civilian (i.e., non-military) institutions involved in the fight. Today, that too has evolved, and advocates call for an even more comprehensive, “whole of society” approach (i.e., one that involves government and non-governmental, national and local, and military and civilian stakeholders).

And whereas a decade ago, the focus in “holistic” strategies was still on counterterrorism, consistent with the 2006 U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (UNGCTS), today more attention is being paid to developing complementary national action plans on preventing violent extremism (PVE), in line with the 2015 U.N. Secretary-General’s PVE Plan of Action.

The adoption of that U.N. plan helped catalyze action on P/CVE in a number of areas. The United States and dozens of other countries developed P/CVE strategies, plans, or programs; donors have increasingly prioritized P/CVE projects for funding, with hundreds of civil society organizations (CSOs) around the globe often the beneficiaries; women, youth, and cities, largely absent from counterterrorism discussions a decade ago, are now seen by many as essential partners on P/CVE; research on the drivers of violent extremism in specific geographies increased; and the multilateral architecture is increasingly cluttered with P/CVE players, including development institutions that long had been loath to get involved in efforts centered primarily on military or law enforcement approaches.

Resistance to Serious Global Analysis of P/CVE

Yet, despite these developments, the multilateral system lacks a way to review, analyze, and assess different country P/CVE approaches, as is done regularly with counterterrorism at the United Nations, for example. Certainly, there is ample attention given to what works and what doesn’t in terms of individual P/CVE programs. But this is a small piece of the wider P/CVE agenda, and most of that larger picture gets lost at the United Nations and most multilateral settings.

The situation at the United Nations is particularly instructive. The 2015 U.N. PVE Plan of Action led to a rapid growth in the number of U.N.-funded P/CVE projects around the globe, supported by voluntary financial contributions. The U.N. Development Program alone has supported 19 PVE National Action Plans (NAPs) and a number of  regional PVE initiatives. The U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism has convened a number of high-level regional conferences on different aspects of the P/CVE agenda, typically to promote tolerance and empower young people. These conferences typically focus on “innovative” programs, often managed by national governments or delivered by grassroots organizations or leaders, rather than on any national legislation, policies, or programs that might be undermining P/CVE efforts, inadvertently or otherwise.

So the United Nations stays on politically safe ground by limiting its involvement in P/CVE to supporting,  without tapping into the regular U.N. budget, projects in the field that concentrate on training teachers, police, civil society, and other practitioners, or on organizing regional conferences that generally avoid sensitive issues.

Yet, authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Russia have successfully restricted the involvement of U.N. intergovernmental bodies in this agenda and, more broadly, the ability of the United Nations to serve as a platform for consideration of all aspects of the P/CVE agenda.  For example, showing what amounts to displeasure in diplomatic parlance, the U.N. General Assembly has only been able to “take note” of the Secretary-General’s PVE Plan of Action. Members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)  argued (without evidence), that the plan unfairly targeted Islam and Muslim-majority countries. Russia and other authoritarian regimes outside the OIC were also among the ringleaders in preventing an endorsement of the framework.

Starting with its response to the “foreign terrorist fighter” phenomenon in 2014, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) has incorporated discrete elements of the P/CVE agenda in its resolutions, e.g., engaging local communities or empowering women and youth. But these have come in the form of carefully circumscribed, non-binding “encourages” language — rather than the legally binding “decides” lexicon that is increasingly found in traditional counterterrorism provisions in Security Council resolutions.

Why this resistance? A key reason likely is the P/CVE agenda’s implicit focus on how governments protect and otherwise treat their citizens. As a result, some like Russia see it as a “pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states and destabilize legitimate governments.”

A full-throated embrace of the P/CVE framework might require states to be more transparent and inclusive than traditional counterterrorism and national security approaches allow. The security apparatus in a number of countries is likely to resist such reforms, with the reforms exposing their lack of respect for human rights, and more broadly, poor practice. Further, such an embrace could serve as at least a tacit acknowledgment by governments of their own role in generating grievances that can drive extremist violence.  As such, this risks complicating their efforts to place responsibility (with little supporting data) at the feet of external factors such as religion or ideology.

In fact, the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action was quite bold in its references to “collective grievances and victimization” that can “fuel the thirst for revenge against oppressors,” thus recognizing the counterproductive role that governments can play.

Treated as an Appendage to Counterterrorism

As a result, neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly have adopted a resolution or endorsed a report or set of recommendations with a specific focus on P/CVE. In fact, P/CVE is treated as an appendage of the wider counterterrorism agenda. Not only is it subsumed under one of the four pillars of the counterterrorism strategy (the next review is scheduled this summer), but bureaucratically it falls under the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism. That gives the impression that the traditional security approach to addressing the threat prevails.

The upshot is that there is no separate treatment of P/CVE by the General Assembly or the U.N. Secretariat, and there has yet to be any systematic stocktaking by any UN body. Further, unlike what exists for counterterrorism via the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, there is no process for member states to report on P/CVE implementation and U.N. experts to assess and identify gaps.

In the balance of power at the United Nations right now, China and Russia are rising, the Qataris and Saudis provide more than 75 percent of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism’s $250 million budget, and the U.S. role is diminished under the Trump Administration. So the P/CVE agenda is likely to face continuing headwinds in the near term.

Options for Addressing Structural Global Gaps on P/CVE

Nevertheless, there may be other avenues available for addressing two of the key, inter-related, structural gaps in the global P/CVE agenda: 1) the lack of a common baseline for gathering data on and assessing P/CVE implementation across a wide range of countries; and 2) the absence of a dedicated platform for governments and other key stakeholders to discuss how to advance this agenda and how to handle the more sensitive aspects, including the governance-related, structural, and other drivers of violent extremism.

On the latter, the Global Counterterrorism Forum may be well-positioned to convene government and non-governmental actors for such discussions, given its informal, technical, and inclusive nature, its well-functioning CVE Working Group, and the numerous CVE “good practices” documents it has developed. It could draw on leaders and organizations in development and peacebuilding, as well as on those in security and other, more traditional counterterrorism fields.

As for the lack of a common baseline, governments, international NGOs, and other could draw on the Global Terrorism Index and other relevant indices, and jointly launch a biannual P/CVE index. Such a product could track States’ risks to violent extremism, including those generated or exacerbated by heavy-handed counterterrorism and other security measures, using the growing body of research. The new index could collect information on States’ compliance with existing, relevant U.N. human rights instruments and on steps taken to implement the UN Secretary-General’s PVE Plan of Action.

In assessing implementation of the U.N. plan of action, this might include, for example, data on the development and implementation of inclusive National Action Plans or other P/CVE frameworks, the involvement of non-law enforcement and cities and other sub-national actors, the existence of a mechanism to facilitate coordination among and ensure accountability of P/CVE actors, the relationship between P/CVE and counterterrorism policies and programs, the scope of P/CVE programs, the involvement of civil society and other local actors in P/CVE efforts, the extent to which P/CVE policies and programs are based on gender, the funding available for P/CVE programs, and the monitoring and evaluation of P/CVE policies and programs.

The index could draw on recommendations from key local individuals and organizations regarding the indicators to assess; be informed by data being generated by GCERF, Hedayah, RESOLVE, and others in the P/CVE field on what is and is not working; evaluate relevant national laws and policies, including National Action Plans; and include a section on “innovation” that features big, new, and implementable ideas.

Some may prefer to hold out hope for the United Nations to deliver on this issue and may be reluctant to seek alternatives outside the global organization. But given the current political climate and the inherently politicized nature of P/CVE, it would be wise to look for complementary, but more efficient, alternatives to ensure the credibility, sustainability, and durability of the P/CVE agenda.

IMAGE: Work displayed on a glass panel during a June 11, 2015, hackathon competition — the fourth in  five months — that was held alongside a two-day countering violent extremism conference in Sydney. The contest gathered 60 people representing a vast range of communities and industries working to come up with ways to combat the Islamic State group’s online propaganda machine. AFP PHOTO / Saeed Khan (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Eric Rosand

Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C., a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and President and Founder of PVE Solutions. Follow him on Twitter (@RosandEric)