A joint statement by over 70 member states of the UN on ‘’the issue of preventing violent extremism’’ was issued last month. It called for the UN ‘’to show strategic leadership and commitment to action’’ and to implement five principles (understanding, integrating, mobilising, communicating and coordinating) set out by these states to achieve the UN’s Plan of Action more effectively. However, there is a very real and urgent concern that these states are promoting a cycle of flawed and failed policies.
The Member States propose that ‘’violent extremism is a generational challenge’’. This is not a promising start. Firstly, we are unclear on what constitutes ‘violent extremism’ and we know that the ‘conveyor belt’ theory, which links certain behaviours and beliefs with a propensity to commit violence, is long past its expiry date. Secondly, the ‘generational challenge’ rhetoric has long been used by governments in the ‘War on Terror’ to justify policies that target communities.
We must be on guard against such rhetoric. While CVE initiatives are presented as ‘soft’ counter-terror measures, the content and the roots remain unchanged; they are a highly securitised and invasive approach that threatens communities and broader society. The same applies to the latest efforts at rebranding such failed policies, as we see with ‘ENGAGE’ in the UK or ‘PEACE’ in the US.
The Member States fail to address a key issue: that there is no universally accepted definition of ‘extremism’. The UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism states that definitions of ‘’terrorism’’ and ‘’violent extremism’’ must be consistent with Member States’ obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law. Despite this, states have adapted their own, often broad, definitions of ‘extremism’, which have allowed for the suppression of legitimate political dissent, criminalisation of speech and thought and the development of a state sponsored Islam.
A growing body of critics
David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, has warned that ‘’some governments target journalists, bloggers, political dissidents, activists and human rights defenders as ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’, criminalizing and detaining them, using legal systems to counter broad and unclear offences’’.
Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights While countering Terrorism, has in turn warned that ‘’states have misused these poorly defined concepts to suppress political opposition or ideological dissent from mainstream values’’.
Surely such concerns should merit a mention in any genuine efforts to tackle ‘’conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism’’? The fact of the matter is, neglecting key issues such as state accountability and the rule of law is one of the many pillars of flawed CVE thinking.
In the statement, the Member States also vouch to ‘’lead by example’’. However, Member States have long been taking the lead from states like the UK and the US, which boast CVE policies that are far from compatible with UN principles. The UK, in particular, has gained unwarranted legitimacy as an innovator behind CVE ‘thinking’ based on its disastrous PREVENT policy. The UK’s efforts at exporting the PREVENT model overseas are not only reckless but are also ill fated; a policy that has entirely failed in the UK, will equally fail elsewhere.
Among a vast and growing range of critics, Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly, has warned that the UK’s PREVENT strategy ‘’could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it’’.
There is also growing concern over CVE initiatives globally. For example, over 50 international NGOs warned in their joint submission to the UN Human Rights Council that ‘’many PVE initiatives have a significant potential to threaten the human rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, the right to privacy, and the freedoms of expression, association, and religion or belief’’. In the US, human rights, civil liberties and community-based organisation have expressed ‘’grave concern’’ about CVE programs, which ‘’overwhelmingly target Muslim communities’’ and rest on ‘’vague and unsupportable ‘’indicators’’ of violent extremism’’. As the CVE industry expands, these concerns will only continue to materialize on a mass scale.
Read more: UN report on CVE issues a warning to the world, but shies away from the more challenging questions
David Kaye has stressed that ‘’so-called CVE or PVE initiatives must be based on a legal framework and on evidence of their effectiveness and their necessity and proportionality to achieve legitimate objectives’’.
Global CVE based on flawed studies
The UK’s failed PREVENT strategy is a prime example of a worst-case scenario and CAGE has recently published a report on the flawed ‘science’ behind the PREVENT strategy, which has broad implications for the UK and beyond. The report should certainly alarm the CVE industry, which operates within the same flawed models. Indeed, researchers at the University of Chicago have also recently expressed concern on the questionable use of academic research in support of CVE policies in the US.
In their statement, the Member States commit to developing a ‘’strong PVE evidence base on the full life-cycle of radicalisation to violence and effective practices to counter and prevent the spread of violent extremism’’. It is true that investment in evidence-based policies is key. However, the starting point cannot be to produce ‘junk science’ for the sole purpose of furthering flawed CVE initiatives.
We are also yet to see any empirical evidence of ‘effective practices’ anywhere in the world; in other words, there is no evidence to show that CVE actually ‘works’. Instead, experience so far has shown us that the unreserved sharing of state nominated ‘best practices’- which often feature PREVENT and Channel – has created a dangerous snowball effect as countries have followed one another into adopting non-evidence based policies, which marginalize sections of the community and threaten civil liberties.
While CVE initiatives are often rolled out as ‘community outreach initiatives’, they effectively function as intelligence gathering exercises.
Real grievances must be resolved
The real ‘generation challenge’ for the international community, and indeed the next UN Secretary General, is bringing an end to the cycle of these failed and flawed policies. States should re-examine their internal policies before calling for the sharing of non-evidence based policies and ‘’domestic experiences’’ on a global level.
Moreover, the UK and US experiences should deter other states from repeating the same mistakes and inspire states to reassess their involvement in CVE initiatives. Instead of financing unchecked global initiatives, which rest on discredited theories of radicalisation, states should invest their efforts in addressing the grievances that drive political violence, namely aggressive US-led foreign policy in the Middle East.
Until these issues are resolved, statements like these will only serve to divert attention from the very real problems around CVE initiatives.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)