Why Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism Law and Practice Is Failing a Human Rights Audit

Last month, I presented a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council focused on the human rights implications of laws and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). The report acknowledges, as others including the U.N. secretary-general have done, that there are evident global challenges in rising incidents and institutionalization of violent extremism. It states the obvious that the costs borne by individuals and communities from violent extremism around the globe should not be ignored. Violent extremism appears to be on the rise, particularly right-wing violent extremism, and the willingness and ability of States to respond adequately is varied.

But, as my report unequivocally outlines, one of the markers of success and value for P/CVE laws and practice is the extent that they are compliant with human rights and the rule of law. In this regard, I make clear that P/CVE programs and practice nationally, regionally, and globally, are uniformly deficient in this regard, and such deficiencies not only undermine the efficacy and value of the efforts to prevent and counter extremism, but they may, in fact, substantially contribute to the alienation, mistrust, and undermining of communities and civil society, creating the conditions conducive to further cycles of violence. Current approaches by many States, regional entities, and the U.N. system lack a consistent grounding in rule of law or human rights. Unfortunately, many such programs and practices are directly contributing to the violation of human rights at the national level. The same lacuna is true for projects supported by the U.N. aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism, which implies, at a minimum, a systematic lack of adherence to the U.N. due diligence policy (requiring that UN policies and practice are compliant with and promote respect for human rights and humanitarian law).

The “Science” of P/CVE

I pay particular attention to the lack of robust scientific data underpinning many of the claims made by States and international institutions to advance the use of preventing and countering violent extremism. I regularly meet with many government officials who claim that their programs aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism work. When they are pressed for evidence, methodology and assessment methods, it quickly becomes clear that there is little or no robust monitoring and evaluation of such programs and practices.

Evidence that the existing plethora of countering violent extremism approaches have successfully reduced extremism is scarce. This does not prevent exaggerated claims being made as to the likely efficacy of particular interventions, especially in the education sector. In fact, despite some increase in the knowledge base on the drivers and tipping points of violent extremism, the debate to date is often largely dominated by private actors and consultants who are self-proclaimed experts, or influenced by government policies, that continue to pursue issues that have been scientifically disproven.

This highlights the challenge of linking research and evidence to policies and programs to ensure that they are not ineffective and counterproductive, exacerbating the grievances on which terrorism feeds. Academic experts, professionals, and civil society actors particularly from local contexts who could inform policymakers about local drivers and factors are significantly absent from policymaking and program-designing forums. The communities and individuals who are the subject of programming aimed at the prevention and countering of violent extremism are further excluded in ways that raise a myriad of ethical issues, as well as undermine claims to effectiveness. In short, a fundamentally different approach is needed, one that is scientifically rigorous, has mainstreamed monitoring and evaluation, meaningfully consults with affected communities, and takes a robust and integrated approach to measuring the human rights costs and impacts of P/CVE programs and practice.

We ought to be particularly concerned about the simplistic deployment of P/CVE policy aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism in conflict and fragile settings, where a broader spectrum of interconnected interventions is necessary to stem violent extremism. The widespread commitment to ‘magical thinking’ in such complex settings is illustrated by the sizeable ambitions to increase P/CVE in complex humanitarian and conflict locales, with little patience to negotiate or understand the relevance of the broader terrain of governance, violence, and institutional limitations.

Definitions

We should all be deeply worried about the lack of precise legal definitions of extremism and violent extremism in national legislation, and how these vaguely defined terms can lead to widespread abuses of human rights. Given that there is no globally agreed-to definition of either “extremism” or “violent extremism,” States have effective carte blanche to define a whole range of actions as falling within the ambit of “extremism,” including acts directly and absolutely protected by international law (religious expression, speech, assembly, political participation). In a number of countries I have visited and reviewed, I have found that violations of derogable and non-derogable rights are experienced particularly by religious groups, minority groups and civil society actors – who are being targeted under the guise of countering “extremism.”

Women and Girls

In his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, the U.N. secretary-general affirmed the importance of gender equality in addressing terrorism, not least because it is no coincidence that societies for which gender equality indicators are higher are less vulnerable to violent extremism. Women and girls have figured prominently in the rhetoric, programming and ambitions of States, regional entities, and global entities such as the U.N. in the P/CVE space. While mainstreaming women’s rights into the counterterrorism arena, including the preventing violence extremism policy space, there are good reasons to be concerned about the cynical deployment of women and girls for policy ends, as well as multiple ethical concerns, which caution against the naive deployment of women at the frontlines of prevention in highly unstable, violent, and conflicted settings.

While there has been a distinct upsurge in policy and programming addressing the gender dimension of violent extremism, there has been no systematic monitoring and evaluation assessing the merits, impacts, or human rights-compliance of such programming. Regrettably, prioritizing women as both subjects and conduits of the prevention and countering of violent extremism has rarely been premised on their rights to non- discrimination and equality, but rather relies on the strategic and short-term rationales that fail to address the underlying conditions (inequality and patriarchy) that produce women’s vulnerability to extremist violence. To counter that, we need a more comprehensive understanding of the causes of violent extremism and more localized and credible strategies for countering terrorism, as well as placing the equality and non-discrimination rights of women and girls to the fore of policymaking. The distinct focus on using women as a means of improving counterterrorism efforts runs the risk of agenda-hijacking, whereby a narrow emphasis on “women” distracts attention from the wider structural realities that produce gender inequality, exclusion, and violence.

It is all the more ethically problematic when programming aimed at the prevention and countering of violent extremism is advertised as being for the empowerment of women or as being skills training that benefits women, hiding the security rationale driving the engagement, and ultimately making any credible evaluation valueless. Equally, there is a distinctly patriarchal element to making women the gatekeepers to the men and boys in their communities – as mothers, wives, and sisters – through programming and policies aimed at the prevention and countering of violent extremism.

I have underscored the risks faced by women and girls when they are made the frontline recipients of such policies, particularly when such policy imperatives are viewed as the foreign policy preferences of powerful States. Increasingly, in highly complex, socially conservative, and unstable environments, women are placed in the unenviable position of the frontline delivery of efforts aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism. Such interventions are now also regularly found in the most intimate parts of life – doctors’ offices, classrooms, family courts, mother and baby centers, and family life – formally constituting violations of the rights to privacy, family life, and education and health, all of which are protected by international law.

Women-led non-governmental organizations report that funding sources in multiple fragile and conflict-affected environments are tied to programming related to preventing and countering violent extremism. Compromising the most fundamental rights of women and girls (life and security) should not be a placeholder for broader economic, social, and political reform in marginal communities that are at risk of producing terrorism. Bottom line: We should also aim for and welcome a holistic and intersectional approach to addressing the relationship between gender and violent extremism that would include a focus on respect for women’s human rights. This approach would also necessarily address structural inequality, the gendered drivers of armed conflict, the relationship between violent and hegemonic masculinities that fuel the production of violent extremism. But existing programs and practice have a long way to go before we see anything approximating such an approach.

Conclusion

I am not advocating closing our eyes to the realities and practices of violent extremism around the globe. But I disagree with recent commentary on Just Security (here) that the solution is a “full-throated embrace” of a largely American-inspired, human rights-free approach to P/CVE, and simply have the U.N. “do more” P/CVE, while working to break down the objections of certain States to P/CVE. Neither is the solution to have a largely unaccountable Global Counter-Terrorism Forum, inaccessible to civil society and which operates as a largely “human rights-free” zone, lead more P/CVE work (a matter addressed by my report to the U.N. General Assembly this past autumn).

It is clear, however, that, as with any complex matter that engages the production of collective and individual violence, the diagnosis may be simpler than the cure. This means that more complex multi-variable approaches are needed at national, regional and U.N. levels that look beyond simple, short-term engagements, trainings, and “technical support” in societies beset by violence. Addressing structural challenges, which include addressing governance deficits, the rule of law, economic marginalization, educational parity, health equality – in short, providing people the opportunity to live a dignified and meaningful human life – present some of the necessary “cures” to meaningfully prevent extremism. P/CVE as a “catch-phrase” has lots of attractions, not least because it offers simplicity and seemingly easy solutions without having to tackle greater societal woes. In reality, the costs of P/CVE programming is to set back the broader and necessary work of undoing the pathways that lead to violent extremism in ways that are not easily undone.

Image: German police officers escort a veiled woman and two children outside the association linked to mosque Ibrahim Alkhalil in Berlin’s central Tempelhof-Schoeneberg district, on September 22, 2015 where they conduct raids targeting individuals suspected of inciting people to go and fight for the Islamic State group in Syria. Photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).