Human rights should be at the heart of programmes that tackle violent extremism

Respect for human rights needs to be at the heart of programmes that aim to prevent violent extremism (PVE).

Launching the UN’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism in 2016, the Secretary-General of the United Nations called for a comprehensive approach to violent extremism: one that encompasses not only essential security-based counter- terrorism measures, but also preventative ones that address the reasons why people join violent extremist groups. These include socio-economic discrimination, marginalisation, political exclusion and disenfranchisement, lack of accountability and a widespread sense of injustice, among others.

These drivers to violence should in fact also be understood in human rights terms, as they demonstrate the lack of states’ compliance with human rights obligations.

Soldiers stand around a war-damaged building in the Philippines.
© Sherbien Dacalanio/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

In this sense, the UN Plan of Action recognises that preventing and countering violent extremism need to be firmly grounded in human rights and rule of law frameworks, specifically on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and accountability. Our experience at International Alert has shown that these are essential elements for finding enduring solutions to violent extremism.

But how do we ensure that respect for human rights and PVE programmes walk hand in hand, to achieve long-term impact?

Most of the difficulties of working in the field of terrorism and violent extremism stem from the fact that neither has a univocal definition or agreed legal classification. Individual governments have the power to define what behaviour constitutes one or the other. This results in responses that intervene at a stage where a criminal act may not have been committed yet, leading to a general lowering of criminal law thresholds to operating in a “pre-crime space”. It raises concerns about the very foundation of criminal law, i.e. the respect of the legality principle whereby no one should be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed (article 15 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR).

Loose legal frameworks also mean that different behaviours can get categorised as violent extremism or terrorism for political reasons, to attract donor funding or as a way to control civil society and political opposition. Broad definitions also result in different actors falling under the umbrella of violent extremism, from ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘rebel groups’ to organised criminal gangs depending on the perspective of who is naming them. This risks the selective application of the label “violent extremism” to specific groups or individuals, which violates another core criminal principle that states that everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law (article 14 of the ICCPR), thus reinforcing discrimination, marginalisation and intolerance.

Alert’s research in Mali found that the language of ‘extremism’ does not translate usefully in communities that do not have equivalent terms for ‘radicalisation’ or ‘extremism’ in their local language. It also revealed that the main cause of violence experienced by civilians is rather related to crime, conflict over resources or identity, and as a response to widespread abuse by the security forces. This raises questions around the emphasis placed on violent extremism in a country divided by many more prevalent tensions that represent equally significant challenges to long-term peace.

From a programmatic point of view, operating in a space where terminology and definitions are vague can carry a number of risks. Indiscriminately viewing all violent behaviour and groups as instances of “violent extremism” could limit the response and affect impact. Additionally, in the absence of clear cut definitions, identification of beneficiaries and targeting may run the risk of profiling according to defined criteria, which furthers discrimination and stigmatisation. An International Alert programme in Nigeria that targeted the female survivors of sexual and gender-based violence by Boko Haram initially generated a feeling of marginalisation and frustration amongst other women, who were also survivors of violence more broadly but had no access to support. Activities were re-adapted to provide economic recovery for all eligible women to participate. Through this collaborative shift addressing the interaction between the program and its context, stigma against survivors was reduced overall.

Participation in political and public life is key

Extremist views become a societal concern only when narratives are expressed violently, when they promote the superiority of one group over another or become divisive. Measures to prevent or counter violent extremism risk placing unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the exercise of human rights such as freedom of expression , political participation and peaceful assembly (articles 19, 25 and 21 of ICCPR respectively). Fair and pluralistic participation in political and public life in fact reduces exclusion and is key to creating understanding and mutual respect between communities and between the state and its citizens.

Participation thus becomes a necessary element of the program design both in human rights-based approaches and peacebuilding. In many places where Alert works, communities most affected by conflict remain voiceless and excluded as stakeholder engagement tools tend to prioritise traditional power holders, be it state structures or religious/traditional leaders. This trend should be reversed: communities and groups, especially young people, should be placed at the centre of the process and encouraged to translate their personal experiences of exclusion and powerlessness into solutions for inclusive transformation.

In Tunisia for example, Alert has since 2013 been combining dialogue and political participation with innovative digital community mapping tools, encouraging young people in disadvantaged Tunis suburbs to convey their views to local and national authorities. In the Philippines, Alert’s work with young people to understand the underlying causes of local conflicts helps them develop concrete projects and solutions through mentoring and capacity building.

These programs show how greater respect for civil and political rights through dialogue and community participation increases social cohesion and decreases the sense of marginalisation and exclusion that could push youth towards violent extremist groups. They serve as great example of how human rights and peacebuilding approaches can work together to promote peaceful and inclusive societies.