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The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism
The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism
In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon
In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon
Op-Ed / Global

The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism

Originally published in Reuters

How should the world respond to the extending reach of radical movements like Islamic State, al Qaeda and Boko Haram across today’s battlefields?

Reactions have included ground offensives, air strikes, targeted killings and sanctions. But another approach is the “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, agenda, which has emerged as a soft counterweight to the military responses against al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Its latest addition is United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s action plan to “prevent violent extremism” (the secretary-general uses PVE rather than CVE but the thinking is much the same). He called for “a new global partnership to confront this menace,” as he unveiled it last month.

There are, however, problems with his plan — both in what it does and doesn’t do.

Much, of course, makes sense. Any remedy to the wars, renditions, torture and drone strikes that have played into extremists’ hands over the past decade and a half is welcome. So, too, is the plan’s acknowledgement of the grievances, particularly human-rights violations, injustice and repressive governance, that facilitate extremists’ recruitment, and its warning to world leaders that terrorist attacks often aim to provoke overreaction.

Though the plan stops short of explicitly linking extremists’ gains to major and regional powers’ war-making in the Middle East, Ban was about as bold as he could have been about member-states’ responsibility for the mess. “Short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures,” he said, “and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”

But there are dangers in the way Ban has framed the problem.

The first lies in a failure to define terms, as a smart piece by Naz Modirzadeh, founding director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, points out. There is barely a hint on whether “violent extremism” relates to tactics, motives, ideology, message or aspiration.

So the term obscures more than it illuminates by potentially lumping together diverse forms of protest, insurrection and radicalism. Confusing the Taliban and al Qaeda was a mistake a decade and a half ago, for example. Creating a category that could conceivably include Islamic State, Hamas, Colombian rebels and the Ku Klux Klan is not only analytically faulty but also risks pushing policy in a disturbing direction.

True, for the United Nations, whose members disagree on what makes a “terrorist,” any attempt to define the even more amorphous term “violent extremism” would court controversy. The secretary-general explicitly left the definition to member-states, while warning leaders against misusing the label on their rivals. Yet, by ducking a definition — and, more important, failing to tease out what differentiates a violent extremist from a terrorist — he risks letting them do just that.

The second danger relates to the drivers of extremism that the plan identifies. Diverse regional politics and patterns of radicalization that vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual mean that drawing generic conclusions about underlying drivers is a mammoth task.

That said, the principal catalyst for the rise of the most powerful of these movements over recent years is clear. It lies in the Middle East’s convulsions: the Iraq invasion; Syria’s savage civil war; Sunni suffering in both places; an unnecessary and foolish escalation in Yemen; Libya’s chaos and the weapons spilling south after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, and mounting enmity between states, particularly the bitter sectarian Saudi-Iranian rivalry. All have opened up enormous opportunities for extremists.

Extremist movements have gathered force as crises fester, money, weapons and fighters flow in and violence escalates — often profiting from fighting between their enemies. (Boko Haram is perhaps an outlier here, in that it emerged in northern Nigeria outside an existing warzone. Even there, though, state security forces’ extrajudicial killings and other heavy-handed tactics stoked its insurgency.) Overall, extremists’ increasing reach is more a product of instability than its primary driver, more due to the bloody genesis of crises than to radicalization beforehand.

The secretary-general’s plan rightly calls for redoubled efforts to end the conflicts that extremists feed off. It then, however, muddles the underlying causes of those wars with the dynamics that enable extremists to gain force within them. This makes for a confusing mix in which almost any source of instability can lead to extremism.

Indirectly, of course, this might be true: Fragility leads to conflict that opens doors for extremists. But it makes for an agenda so expansive that it risks offering everything but nothing.

This leads to the third problem: the action points that the secretary-general’s plan lays out for member-states. Unsurprisingly, it’s a long list. If almost anything can cause extremism, almost anything can prevent it. His list includes: giving adolescents jobs; helping marginalized communities; educating children; promoting gender equality; respecting humanitarian law; improving prison conditions, and nudging leaders toward inclusion and reform — to name some of the 70-odd ideas.

Implementing all these measures would clearly make the world a better place. But citing them here seems nonsensical. It might even prove counterproductive, by, for example, politicizing governments’ service delivery, endangering aid workers or distorting diplomacy. Rather than help define the contours of the plan, its catch-all, upstream approach throws more mud into already murky waters.

Perhaps the gravest danger, though, lies in the United Nations buying into the assumptions underpinning the agenda in the first place. The plan implicitly frames much contemporary conflict as struggles between governments and violent extremists.

Despite its calls for dialogue with “opposing parties and regional actors,” the plan appears to rest on the belief that violent extremists are beyond the pale. It pairs sympathy for those at risk of radicalization with disgust for those that have succumbed. If states can’t prevent militants from radicalizing, it implies, the only option is to crush them or force their surrender.

This divorces policy from politics, which leaves a largely empty middle ground between the mostly development- and de-radicalization-oriented policies the plan promotes, on one end, and the counterterrorism or counter-insurgency approach it laments, on the other. It risks reinforcing the mind-set that justifies precisely the hard security measures Ban warns against.

Worse still, it might tempt regimes to deliberately radicalize opposition movements as a survival strategy, as President Bashar al-Assad has done in Syria, locking their countries into never-ending wars against them.

For the United Nations, more valuable than recasting international peace and security as the prevent-violent-extremism agenda would be genuine interrogation of what these groups mean for the wars they now wage. Why is the threat posed by groups like Islamic State or al Qaeda new?

Here, however, the plan is silent.

Extremists’ violence is, for example, horrific, but not unique in its scale. Even Islamic State’s theatrical displays pale alongside the brutality of the Assad regime and its Iran-backed militia allies in terms of terror inflicted and civilians killed or displaced. Al Qaeda’s repressive but pragmatic rule over parts of southeastern Yemen is hardly more violent and extreme than the Saudi-led aerial bombardment.

Indeed, most of these movements fight in wars in which all sides have thrown the rule book out the window. As the U.N. plan points out, this is one key reason for their success.

Nor is their funding through criminal enterprise exceptional. Many armed forces, both state and non-state, profit today from easier access to transnational networks. Often government allies have their fingers deeper in the pie, a point the plan and other recent U.N. documents overlook.

Their leaders’ espousal, in some cases, of goals incompatible with the nation-state system, and thus hard to accommodate in a negotiated settlement, presents a graver challenge. Their rejection of political and religious pluralism, while not unique to them, also poses difficulties, given that both are likely prerequisites for ending the conflicts they fight in. So, too, does their austere vision for society, which often enjoys little popular support, and their rejection of the concept of the modern state. For many, the United Nations is an enemy.

They certainly present fresh challenges for U.N. missions and mediation. If the Security Council can’t deploy blue helmets amid suicide bombers or remains wary of mediators engaging with groups it designates as terrorist, the United Nations will soon have few places left to go and few militants left to talk to.

The increasing potency of groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda — often as large insurgent movements, with ties to communities, whose military defeat appears remote but which show scant interest in political processes – is altering the conflict landscape. The U.N.’s operational departments should adapt in response.

Nor can the Security Council leave monitoring of these groups to sanctions committees or counterterrorism experts, which are often unable to explore questions the United Nations needs to ask. How can peacekeepers, for example, protect themselves and civilians from asymmetric tactics? Which movements or factions within them can potentially be engaged? How, by whom, what for and with what cost? How committed are leaders or the rank and file to transnational goals? Can the majority of fighters, usually motivated by diverse and local concerns – and for whom the “violent extremist” label is especially inapt — be pried away from hard-liners? Which movements are more like those in Mali, with shallow social roots and unable to face a serious force, and which like the Afghan Taliban, mostly nationalist, with deeper roots, foreign backing and capable of withstanding U.S. troop numbers in the hundreds of thousands?

For their part, member-states now considering the U.N. plan need to think carefully about what they label the prevent-violent-extremism agenda. Some leaders will likely misuse it to mask rotten politics. But those genuinely committed might be better off adopting a narrower vision that focuses mostly on “pull” factors and includes a handful of context-specific, targeted measures against Islamic State’s recruitment of foreign fighters, for example, increased radicalization in prisons or to reach out to especially vulnerable youth.

States should, of course, redouble efforts against “push” factors, such as marginalization, underdevelopment and joblessness, part of their efforts to achieve sustainable development goals. Sometimes these measures will help prevent extremism, too.

Just don’t call them PVE.

In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon

Originally published in The Brussels Binder

Interview conducted by Miranda Sunnucks.

Isabelle Arradon is the Director of Research and Special Adviser on Gender at the International Crisis Group, an organisation that seeks to prevent, mitigate and resolve deadly conflict. Her areas of expertise include human rights and the rule of law, security sector reform, and gender, discrimination and civil society.

In May 2017, Isabelle introduced a gender strategy for the International Crisis Group after consulting with staff across the organisation. A few months later, she established a gender, peace and security workstream to help further integrate the gender dimension across the organisation’s analytical work. With a dedicated team since September 2018, Isabelle has led projects on gender and militancy, specifically looking at the roles women play in supporting and sustaining insurgencies, women’s political participation, specifically the role of women’s groups to support peace efforts, and on the differentiated impact of conflict on men and women.

We sat down with Isabelle to talk about what motivates her, how she would like to reform the security sector, and what needs to happen to achieve gender equality.

You managed to implement a gender workstream at the organisation you work for. Why is it important to bring a gender lens to deadly conflict?

In 2003, when I was 24, I was working in the far western part of Indonesia, in Aceh. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was fighting an insurgency to create an independent state from Indonesia. I saw first-hand how years of armed conflict was having a major toll on civilians. While men suspected to be GAM fighters were at risk of torture or disappearance, women were often left with few options to look after their loved ones, as the men were gone and they were on the move with their children. I was struck by the role played by leading women’s rights activists – a prominent female lawyer Syarifah Murlina (who died two years later when a tsunami struck Aceh), an academic Khairani Arifin, also a mother of three, caring for the displaced, as well as young female activists seeking to make a difference for the local population. I was there again in the aftermath of the 2005 peace agreement, when Sharia-based local laws were implemented and new restrictions were imposed on women and gay men. In this post-conflict society where women were being told how they should dress and behave, amid a wider context of unresolved cases of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, I witnessed how the gender discourse was politicised and used as a scene of new power battles, limiting the space for dissent. These first-hand experiences showed me how women’s rights and gender is another battle-ground, an integral part of societal dynamics prior, during and after conflict, and therefore why a gender lens needs to be incorporated into conflict analysis.

Syarifah Murlina from the Legal Aid Foundation, January 2003, Aceh. Private

When I joined the International Crisis Group in August 2014, after ten years working for Amnesty International, I realised that, despite some strong research on women’s security and conflict (eg, on Pakistan), we were not systematically integrating a gender dimension into our analysis. If we did, I argued, we could better understand the vastly different and complex social dynamics of different communities, how they inform conflict and how war changes people – their needs, their roles, their aspirations. And yes, this is a huge challenge: adopting a gender perspective requires anthropological analysis; it requires the audacity to challenge stereotypes that we all have, and, as an analyst, to unpack those in the societies we study. It often requires asking questions in highly patriarchal contexts where ideas around women’s rights or gender are highly politicised and poorly understood. Together with other colleagues, and with initial support from Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a long-time advocate for women’s participation in our field, I emphasized that by doing this, we could do a better job. We could better analyse the dynamics at play prior to conflict, understand experiences of those caught up in conflict, and find more durable solutions for peace in the interest of all populations.

Furthermore, I argued that this workstream would allow us to carry out a political analysis of gender, taking into account the different layers of involvement in militancy for men and women, how armed groups and governments alike have viewpoints on what men and women should be doing in the public and private spheres, and how these discourses play out in conflict, inform recruitment into armed groups, and energise war strategies. I also insisted on the importance of challenging our understanding of power and influence, and how shedding a light on the role of women was extremely important. Lastly, I felt it was crucial to understand the importance of civil society and specifically women’s groups having a role to play to inform our research and broader policy discussions including on security arrangements to mitigate harm and support sustainable peace.

Isabelle Arradon with Acehnese civil society activists, April-May 2003, Aceh. Private

Was it a challenge to implement this workstream?

It was, and this is because everything is compartmentalised in this field – human rights, economic analysis, security and so on. Gender has traditionally been siloed to the domain of human rights, associated with the promotion of “women’s rights”, and too often has been left out of security studies or international relations. This was not just the case at Crisis Group but in other institutions as well. Nevertheless, I found it important that Crisis Group, an organisation that seeks to talk to all parties with the aim of resolving deadly conflict, analysed gender discourses in the same way that we analysed other social strands. I felt that more training of our staff was needed to help them understand what the concepts meant, and to clarify that gender analysis was not just the domain of human rights, but also our domain, that of conflict resolution. I explained that it was about looking at men and women away from the sole binary lens of victim-perpetrator, but also to unpack various levels of allegiances to militancy and what changes affected men and women during conflict. Since launching the workstream, which also builds on the excellent work of Crisis Group analysts over the years, our research has shown time and again that gender is in the domain of power politics.

For example, we have been working on women’s evolving role in militant groups, looking specifically at Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. We found that, while many women are coerced into joining these groups, many others join voluntarily, and take up key roles in recruitment, fundraising or arms smuggling. The concepts surrounding gender in conflict are complex and to reduce gender analysis to a focus on victims – while important – prevents us from uncovering other hidden truths: that despite challenging environments many women have agency and a role to shape peace as in the case of Aceh, that they can be spoilers in their own right as part of their role in insurgencies, or that men themselves are also at risk of a range of abuses – including sexual abuse.

So yes, mainstreaming gender analysis across our work was a challenge. But thankfully I benefited early on from the support of the top leadership at the organisation, and from the energy and continuous help of many wonderful colleagues across programs. Also, for all to see first hand how it helped bring nuances to conflict analysis, which otherwise would have been overlooked (eg, on Turkey and the Syrian youth) has energised the workstream. It is complicated to keep the debate in conflict prevention as it should be: non-political and with a view to improve the lives of civilians. Helping make a difference in the lives of conflict-affected populations is what I aim for Crisis Group’s work to deliver.

One of your areas of expertise is reform of the security sector. Security is a very male-dominated area of foreign affairs. How have you been able to navigate your way as a woman in this field? What has been the key to your success?

It’s true that early on in my career I encountered very male-dominated spheres, especially when I carried out my work on the security sector in South East Asia. While in Aceh, authorities were overwhelmingly men – military officials, the police, local government officials. Even civil society leaders were mostly male. Later with Amnesty International, I worked on policing issues and similarly I met dozens of male senior police officers, prison guards or security officials over the course of multiple field trips and human rights investigations.

Although I was quite young when I started, and perhaps perceived as less credible, I found strength in the injustice I was seeing and the support I was getting from fellow colleagues and tireless human rights activists on the ground. I was also lucky enough to come from a relatively privileged position, being from a country, France, which did not fuel particular animosity in this part of the world but carried some respect – probably in part due to its position on the UN Security Council; you can’t underestimate how different power dynamics interact together – it’s not just about gender, but also age, nationality, education status, socio-economic background, etc. We should always bear these multiple identities in mind when talking about inclusion. This is also why I find partnerships so powerful, it allows the more privileged to amplify the voices of those who have something to say but who are unable to. This is one of the reasons I felt it was so important for Crisis Group to partner with the Brussels Binder, whose core mission is to ensure all voices are heard.

I would also add that throughout my career, a huge number of men, directly working with conflict-affected populations or in decision-making roles, have worked with me to draw attention to these issues. There are so many men who care deeply about making a difference on the ground for all, and getting the right analysis out.

Isabelle Arradon presenting the gender workstream at Crisis Group Board Meeting, April 2017, Brussels. CRISISGROUP / Hugh Pope

You often find all-male panels in discussions on foreign affairs. Why is this?

This is a very gendered field. For some reasons security studies, geopolitical analysis and international relations seem to have attracted more male candidates. In contrast there are probably more women than men working for human rights organisations. In many societies impacted by deadly conflict and that Crisis Group works on, it is also notable that very few women are involved in politics or senior government positions. Also, it is mainly men who take up arms and negotiate peace deals, men who are the majority of peacekeepers or national security forces, and mostly men who are political leaders. You can count the number of female G20 leaders on one hand.

However, the small number of female politicians does not reflect the huge number of female experts working in this field, but for a myriad of reasons, they are not asked to participate on panels. There are many underlying causes: women not having the right job title or the right network. It can also be about the very compartmented way expertise is perceived, especially security in the most narrow sense, where the emphasis is state security instead of human security. For example, I don’t see human rights experts on security panels. Why not? I think they have something to contribute. The terminology may be different, but bringing these perspectives to the table, especially if based on input from grassroots organisations, is important. The Brussels Binder has understood this question and has taken significant steps to address it – enabling diversity of experience and perspectives to be reflected in policy debates can lead to innovative, inclusive policies that positively impact society.

Isabelle Arradon discussing the concept of human security at NATO inclusive, July 2018. Twitter / @brandonjlocke

If you could give one piece of advice to a woman who finds herself on an all-male panel, what would it be?

You must remember that you are as good as the other members of that panel. Make sure you prepare well so that you have something to say, and have the confidence to say it. If you are moderating, think about giving space to a diverse audience to ask questions, and that the content of the discussion touches on a range of issues, including the gender perspective, as appropriate. Beware as well that some men are champions of inclusive approaches, and can surprise you by bringing important elements to the fore that help address hidden dimensions of change.

What are, from your perspective, the biggest challenges for women in leadership roles?

In my experience, one major challenge is having a work-life balance. Becoming a mother changed the way I worked and my relation to time. I would never have been able to do what I do – which involved at times extended periods of field work abroad – without flexible working arrangements and help at home. It is important for employers to think about men and women who have families, or differing needs. Leadership should not require being in the office 24 hours a day. It should be understood in different ways so as to cater for different populations. Diversity is crucial to the health of an organisation, especially an international organisation like ours, so ensuring that women – from different parts of society and across different geographic areas – can be part of that conversation is key. In conflict areas and societies where free speech is curtailed, it is also about ensuring that women activists and political leaders can navigate life free from threats, harassment and other abuse. Recently I raised the alarm about protecting women’s space in politics.

What is the main point that you would like to make about equality today?

One must never underestimate the power of education. With education, women can make decisions about their lives in an informed way. However, while the quality of education is improving, society still needs to catch up. I have two teenage daughters, I can see that the world has infinite possibilities, but will the world catch up to accommodate those possibilities? Despite many contexts with similarly high levels of education, there is still a huge disparity between men and women’s access to leadership positions, especially in our field. Something needs to be adjusted so that the new generation can decide. It isn’t necessarily about all women being able to reach leadership positions. It is about giving them the choice.