The United Nations is considering a new strategy to tackle terrorism: prevent it rather than counter it. Will it draw action from the member state
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | April 14, 2016
The UN co-hosted a high-level conference in Geneva on preventing violent extremism (PVE) on April 7 and 8. The conference drew some 30 government ministers, including the foreign ministers of Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt and Malaysia, apart from UN secretary general (SG) Ban Ki-moon, UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and UN assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN refugee agency Volker Turk, among others. Additionally, 600 participants, comprising counter-terrorism experts, social media organisations including from Facebook and Twitter, and international civil society organisations, also participated in the event.
This was the first time since 9/11 that the international community focused on “preventive” action rather than “countering” terrorism that essentially entails security and military action.
What is the PVE initiative?
Ban Ki-moon opened the second day’s high-level segment in Geneva, alongside the foreign minister of co-host Switzerland, Didier Burkhalter.
“Evidence shows that security and military responses alone cannot defeat this scourge. Sometimes such responses have proven to be counter-productive,” Ban said in the opening remarks.
Ban has developed a plan of action (PoA), which lists 79 recommendations and urges the member states to adopt a national PoA for PVE. The PoA in the form of a resolution for consideration of these recommendations was adopted by consensus in February this year by the UN general assembly (UNGA).
The UN chief also announced his plans of creating a UN system-wide high-level PVE action group to spearhead the implementation of the plan at both the headquarters and field levels, which will review these recommendations in June.
However, the resolution focuses on VE “which can be conducive to terrorism” because not all VE/radicalisation results in terrorism. The resolution states that “there is a risk that a conflation of the two terms [VE and terrorism] may lead to the justification of an overly broad application of counter-terrorism measures, including against forms of conduct that should not qualify as terrorist acts.” The resolution quotes the UN security council [UNSC] resolution 2178 as stating that PVE requires collective efforts, “including preventing radicalization, recruitment and mobilization of individuals into terrorist groups and becoming foreign terrorist fighters”.
The recommendations for the national PoAs include a focus on eight priority areas: dialogue and conflict prevention; strengthening good governance; human rights and the rule of law; engaging communities; empowering youth; gender equality and empowering women; education, skill development and employment facilitation; and strategic communications, including through the internet and social media. The recommendations have been drawn from a medley of adopted UN resolutions as well as from the sustainable development goals.
The conference is going to be a “reality check” for governments, said Jehangir Khan, chief of the UN’s counter-terrorism division, ahead of the conference. The aim will be to develop “granular plans of action where it matters at home” but also at the regional and global levels. “Can we afford a business-as-usual approach?” he stated, when there are 30,000 foreign fighters drawn from 100 countries.
READ INTERVIEW WITH JEHANGIR KHAN, DIRECTOR, CTITF: “This conference is all about prevention [of violent extremism]”
“We know that violent extremism flourishes when aspirations for inclusion are frustrated, marginalised groups linger on the sidelines of societies, political space shrinks, human rights are abused and when too many people – especially young people – lack prospects and meaning in their lives,” Al-Hussein said at the panel.
An imbalanced emphasis on security neglecting prevention is bound to be ineffective, he said. If counter-terrorism operations compound the fear and divisiveness alienating communities, then this ends up “destroying our most effective defences”.
The UN human rights chief said that the SG was guiding us away from a ‘hard security’ approach to one that takes into account the root causes that have led to our insecurity.
“Let this conference – and our unity today – be the ultimate rebuke to that bankrupt strategy [of VE and terrorism],” Ban said at the panel.
The resolution on the PoA that was adopted in February only notes the SG’s PoA which will be further discussed under the UN’s counter-terrorism strategy review that will be held in June this year. The governments have to decide on whether they agree with the SG’s recommendations, whether changes have to be made and finally what form the outcome would take, for instance, if there will be a UNGA resolution.
Though at first glance it would appear that most member states would not have any significant objections to decide on an outcome for PVE, however, significant challenges remain in the path to fulfillment of the UNSG’s hope that the document be adopted with consensus.
The UN having burnt its fingers over the past decade in trying to define terrorism – a terrorist for one country may be a martyr in another – has skirted the issue of defining VE. It focuses rather on the ‘push’ and the ‘pull’ factors, or the ‘drivers’ of terrorism. Delegations raised the issue of defining the phenomenon before substantial discussions begin. The initiative carries the risk of getting buried under squabbling about definitions.
“Without clear understanding on the notion, let alone the absence of any definition or agreed one…it is of utmost importance to define clearly the phenomenon we wish to address globally before we embark on any strategy…,” Amr Ramadan, Egypt’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the conference.
Though the conference perhaps meant to push the member states towards an introspective exercise, it ended up with delegations focusing a substantial amount of their attention on external factors that encourage VE and terrorism and highlighted their own geopolitical concerns and interests.
India took a dig at those not being able to “stamp out” terrorism from their countries (read Pakistan) and its “frustration” for the same; Pakistan pointed to “international triggers” to VE and the “right to self-determination”; Russia spoke of the “willingness of a number of states to use radical groups for political purposes” (read Saudi Arabia); Azerbaijan and Armenia ranted at each other as to who is more responsible for the present regional turmoil, while Syria spoke of foreign intervention, and Saudi Arabia spoke of the Palestinian situation among other issues.
“Why is VE growing in areas which have faced persistent foreign intervention and occupation or where people have long been fighting for their legitimate right of self-determination,” said Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. Pakistan will support initiatives on PVE at the UN that are “balanced and consistent”, she said. Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Pakistan said that they have good experience in countering VE. Saudi Arabia and Egypt said that there was an unfair emphasis on certain regions in the SG’s document on PVE.
“We note that the PoA mentions only Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Boko Haram; it does not mention other regions of the world, such as Europe, Latin America and also, it uses the [the term] Islamic State that links violent extremism with Islamic religion and forms an image of Islam which is not acceptable,” said Faisal Bin Hassan Trad, ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the UN in Geneva.
“Will the UN be in a position to address the growing right wing in many developed countries or shall the UN focus only on a few regions,” Janjua further added.
Some delegations also said the list of drivers of terrorism by the SG is not exhaustive.
“In today’s globalised and inter-connected world, can we separate local and international in the context of violent extremism? Are there no international dimensions to the concept of deprivation, injustice, exclusion, and marginalisation... how could local drivers focusing on a certain region only explain the emergence of a significant number of foreign terrorist fighters coming from developed countries,” Janjua said.
“We do not believe the five other drivers are exhaustive, there were other factors that were not listed like foreign domination, self-determination, racism, xenophobia, defamation of religion and aspects of prospects for the future,” Ramadan told the conference.
Saudi Arabia stated that while spreading democracy, human rights, pluralism and women’s rights have been listed as ways to limit the attraction for VE but this does not take into consideration the fact that a number of youth, women have joined Daesh. It also expressed its discontent at using the term ‘Islamic State’ in the document that paints a certain picture of Islam rather than of Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group, which has a derogatory connotation.
“We consider it wrong to see the ‘lack’ of democratic governance as the main cause of this phenomenon. Radicalisation spreads around the globe and not a single society is prone to it and immune to the threats it generates,” Ilya Rogachev, head of Russia’s foreign ministry’s department for modern challenges and threats, said.
Finally, the issue of where the onus lies for PVE will be a contentious one because implementing the comprehensive approach detailed in the paper is a tall order for most member states.
Additionally, the issue of funding of the PoA will be another point of debate among the member states.
India in a UNGA meeting in New York in February this year had stated that the proposed plan was too prescriptive for member states, but short on what the UN would do to help governments. For instance, it offered no single contact point for assisting them. Though addressing the phenomenon was the primary responsibility of governments, but it was a global contagion, requiring international cooperation to address it.
(This article appears in the April 16-30, 2016 issue)
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