Jehangir Khan speaks on the recently-held Geneva conference on preventing violent extremism
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | April 14, 2016
Jehangir Khan is the director of Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) in the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in the UN Secretariat. The plan of action (PoA) that UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon submitted to member states has been developed through the CTITF. Khan spoke to Shreerupa Mitra-Jha on the recently-held Geneva conference on preventing violent extremism.
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What is an ‘all-of-UN’ approach to preventing violent extremism (PVE)?
What we mean by all-of-UN, as we have said in the PoA, is that all the relevant agencies [are involved]. I will give you an example: this PoA has been developed through the body that I lead – the UN Counter-Terrorism Task Force – is a coordinating body of 38 UN agencies. The issue is we accept that VE has a peace and security dimension, sustainable development dimension, human rights dimension, humanitarian dimension, so those are all the agencies that deal with the different aspects. That’s why you had a large panel – the high commissioner for human rights, the [UN deputy high commissioner for protection of] refugees, the special envoy for Syria, because all of them are dealing with different aspects of this and all of their work, as you heard them, is affected by VE. So there isn’t one area in the work of the UN.
Most of the response, since 9/11 in particular, has been in the peace and security area. Now we are looking at taking a much broader approach because that’s the way and we are trying to look at the drivers of this upstream, preventive. So that’s why the whole emphasis is the ‘p’ word. This conference is all about prevention. The security logic has been so much about the counter, counter means responding. We are putting the emphasis on the ‘p’ – preemption, prevention and being pro-active. That’s the buzzword of this conference, that is, the prevention angle which is actually a core mandate of the UN. Prevention is what we should be doing in all areas and that is why we are bringing the UN system together to start thinking about this in the context of how, what are they doing, in an all-of-UN approach to address the different aspects that we have identified during this conference and the PoA.
There have been arguments that the scourge of terrorism has been caused by countries that are member states of the UN. So how do you propose to achieve unity among governments for this initiative?
This international conference that was convened by the UN secretary general (SG) and the Swiss government was really focused on the issue of violent extremism (VE), that we believe is a major factor that is fueling the global spread of terrorism. VE is a phenomenon that is affecting many different countries around the world. For the SG he felt that because this is becoming such a universal threat, this is not only a call to action but actually a call to unity. He strongly believes that VE is a scourge especially because it is affecting our youth – 1.8 billion youth. [In] many countries youth are the larger part of the population, and as a result we have an urgent duty, a moral imperative to mobilise, in particular focus on how youth are not seen as a negative factor but as a positive potential for change, for progress and for making sure that our future is protected because there is nothing more urgent when we talk of prevention than for the imperative of our children, of our youth who are dying today in the hundreds and in the thousands. The terrorists and the violent extremists are preying on our youth. They are recruiting them, they are using them, they are killing them. And they are also the biggest victims of terrorism and VE.
So that is why we are not pointing fingers to anybody but what we are saying is all countries need to come together and we have seen that in a very dramatic way – so many countries came together, so many countries spoke up here, so many countries universally expressed their concern and condemnation because international cooperation is the only way in which we can address this. No one country can solve the problem by itself.
There is no definition of VE. There was some discussion at the conference on defining the term. Is it too optimistic to think that member states would agree on a definition in the short-term future or would this debate go on forever like a definition of terrorism?
The PoA that the SG has presented has some 79 recommendations and those recommendations are really focused on what he calls the drivers of VE. What he felt was that the issue of definition, we know, as you rightly said, for a long time in the UN, member states have not been able to come to a conclusion on what constitutes terrorism although, mind you, there are 19 international conventions that define different acts of terrorism and there are various Security Council resolutions that also address specific aspects of terrorism.
So the SG felt that on the issue of VE if we really want to act quickly, we have to think practically. In the PoA rather than defining he is identifying very practically what are the push and the pull factors that are fueling VE and then he has put forward recommendations on how to impact on those specific drivers both in terms of what member states may wish to consider doing but also what the UN and the international community can do to support member states because one of the main principles of this PoA is that each country should develop its own PoA, and, therefore, he is emphasising the principle of national ownership, because we must be humble and recognise that there isn’t one cure, one quick fix: each country has its specific aspects, they have to find their own solution and what he has presented is a menu of practical proposals and leaves it to the member states to decide what of those is most relevant to their societies and offers the support of the UN in terms of how we can provide technical assistance, capacity building support at the request of the member state because we must recognise that the governments and member states individually are in the driver’s seat in how they address this issue. One of the things we must recognise is that sometimes the cure-all, quick fix approach doesn’t work. This is a long, hard road and we need to work together and in a way to show some humility to realise that nobody has all the answers. Even this PoA is not an answer to all issues. It is a menu, a basis for member states to consider and then to take forward. It’s really for them to consider.
And that has really been the purpose of this conference to allow member states to consider it in more depth, on the road to its further consideration in June under the UN global counter terrorism strategy review when member states will have to also consider how they should respond whether via a resolution of the general assembly [or] whatever way they wish to come up with an outcome. The SG’s view is that a consensus outcome would be the best answer to VE – it would send a resounding ‘no’ to all terrorists around the world that the international community is united. And, therefore, a consensus outcome and an agreement on this is the best way of sending that resounding ‘no’ because that’s what they need to hear, because if there are divisions within the governments and member states, terrorist groups would exploit them. And we want to close ranks. So the value of Geneva has been to bring convergence, to bring us together even though there may be differences of view and that is understandable.
We know that UN resolutions are non-binding in nature. Even if a UNGA resolution is adopted how will you ensure that member states stand up seriously to the commitment of having and implementing a national plan for PVE?
We [the UN] work through dialogue, through convergence and through consensus. We help to develop international norms and most importantly we try to also promote best practices and we have to learn from each other also because different countries are addressing this issue – there are more than 100 countries, for example, who are affected by foreign fighters. Each of them already has to deal with it by themselves and they are developing good practices in many cases and so, how to harness those best practices and then impart them to member states. And the issue of whether member states are going to do this – I don’t think the SG is proposing a kind of a compulsory [thing]. The idea is not to make anything compulsory because ultimately, as I said, it’s the principle of national ownership – if each country develops its own national plan and then, of course, it is up to each country through either legislation or good policies to actually implement them. What we are offering, like I said, is a menu of options and the potential assistance of UN, like in other areas [for instance] development cooperation, food etc. The UN is not the government. This is primarily the responsibility of each government and their society as a whole – so he has put forward the idea of all of government, all of society approach and all of UN. We have to take an inclusive approach. Because it is a multi-dimensional thing: peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, humanitarian action. VE is impacting all four areas not just the peace and security issue. That’s why we have taken a comprehensive approach.
The short answer to your question is simply that the ownership has to be with governments, it’s not with the UN. We can’t go around enforcing these things. This is not the way the UN works: the UN works by promoting convergence, consensus and then leaves it to governments to implement. The UN is not a supra-national organisation; it’s an inter-governmental organisation.
But we just heard some member states, like Brazil, say that the primary responsibility of PVE lies with the UN, not with the member states because many instances of VE are caused by international triggers. Do you see a lot of passing-around-the ball between the UN and member states?
The SG has been very clear in his PoA: this is in accordance with the principle of sovereignty which is a bedrock principle of the UN charter that when it comes to national policies, those are the responsibilities of the government. Our role is to support governments at their request. We have to be requested also. That is, in any area in the work of the UN is that in any aspect of national policy, the governments are there, they are independent governments and that’s a corner principle of the UN charter and our role is to support and assist after the request of the government. If they don’t request, we can’t do anything. That’s the way we work.
(This interview appears in the April 16-30, 2016 issue)