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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
How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention
How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention
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.

Three people walk through a sand storm in the Bakassi Camp for internally displaced persons of Maiduguri, north-eastern Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISISGROUP/ Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

How Climate Science Can Help Conflict Prevention

With climate change’s impact on peace and security set to grow in the years to come, Crisis Group has stepped up its analysis of the links between climate and conflict, helping shape climate policy at the highest level through cutting-edge field research and wide-ranging outreach.

Crisis Group has long seen climate change as an integral element of its research and advocacy aimed at stopping or mitigating deadly conflict. Nearly two decades ago, to name one example, we published a path-breaking report on water and conflict in Central Asia. Hundreds of people each month still read the report in English or Russian on our website.

Since 2020, we have made notable progress toward a new goal: to become the go-to source of analysis and pragmatic recommendations for decision-makers on the intersection of climate and conflict. We have published several original reports and briefings on climate-related topics – on resource politics in the Sahel, herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria and the Nile waters dispute, for instance – backed up with increased use of multimedia tools like videos, graphics and podcasts. We have also deliberately ramped up our use of scientific evidence to examine how climate change connects to war and peace in the 21st century. If we have one central finding, it is that while climate change itself does not cause conflict per se, resource governance – how people in power manage access to land, water and other parts of nature’s bounty amid climate change – can increase or reduce the risk of violence.

A polluted river near Kipushi mine, Haut Katanga, DR Congo, July 2019. CRISISGROUP/Hans Hoebeke

Our first step forward was to make climate one of the three pillars of our new Future of Conflict Program, launched in January 2020. Two months later, supported by the Global Challenges Foundation, we organised a two-day virtual workshop on climate change and conflict. The workshop brought Crisis Group staff from across the organisation together with leading experts from Adelphi, the Center for Climate and Security, the Clingendael Institute, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the University of Texas at Austin to discuss the state of research in the field, assess Crisis Group’s added value as a leader on peace and security issues, and help set priorities for our new workstream’s agenda.

A Crisis Group virtual event on 16 April 2020, “Beyond Paris: Climate Action, Security and Governance”, convened Paris Climate Agreement architect Ambassador Laurence Tubiana, Director of Agence Française de Développement Rémy Rioux and our Chief Economist and Future of Conflict Program Director Tarek Ghani for an in-depth discussion of climate policy’s future. Tubiana emphasised the growing human displacement by extreme weather. Rioux described his agency’s efforts to address resource competition in the Sahel and water scarcity in the Middle East. Ghani highlighted our research on how climate change had exacerbated herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria and international tensions along the Nile River.

While many regard climate change as a long-term threat, millions of people are already exposed to severe climate hazards today.

In November 2020, Ghani briefed the Global Challenge Foundation’s Climate Governance Commission on a peace and security agenda for climate action. He noted that while many regard climate change as a long-term threat, millions of people are already exposed to severe climate hazards today, whether they live in semi-arid locales where desert is encroaching or along low-lying coastlines as sea levels rise. An effective global response requires not only understanding how the latest climate science informs conflict risks but also dedicating funds to help these people adapt their ways of life and help governments manage resources wisely so that intensified resource competition and violent conflict do not emerge.

Cutting-edge Research

In line with the vision developed for our new workstream, we have stepped up publication on climate-related subjects.

In April 2020, we published the briefing The Central Sahel: Scene of New Climate Wars?. It argues that climate change has certainly contributed to transforming agro-pastoral systems in the Sahel, as drought and erratic rainfall push herders into farmlands in search of pasture. But the direct relationship sometimes posited between global warming and dwindling resources, on one hand, and growing violence, on the other, does not help policymakers formulate appropriate responses. To ward off conflict, they must instead situate the climate component among the political choices governing access to resources. To help diffuse the briefing’s messages to a wider audience, we accompanied it with an opinion piece in The Africa Report. Our analysis was picked up by The Continent, a pan-African weekly newspaper, which summarised the briefing’s central argument in a dedicated piece. Al Jazeera and The Guardian both referred to the briefing and its main contentions when they published their own analyses of the relationships between climate and conflict in the Sahel.

Ending the conflict [in Nigeria's North West] requires an integrated approach, including greater humanitarian aid and economic development efforts to mitigate climate change’s effects.

Our May 2020 report Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem again drew attention to the complex links among climate change, resource governance and conflict risks. The report explains that violence in the region is rooted in competition over land and water between predominantly Fulani herders and mostly Hausa farmers, a struggle that has been exacerbated by climate change-related environmental degradation. The violence has escalated amid a boom in organised crime, including cattle rustling, kidnapping for ransom and village raids, with jihadist groups now stepping in to take advantage of the crisis. Ending the conflict requires an integrated approach, including greater humanitarian aid and economic development efforts to mitigate climate change’s effects. The prominent Abuja-based newspaper Daily Trust gave the report front-page coverage and the most influential Nigerian online news platform, Premium Times, republished the executive summary in full. High-profile mentions in international media included AFP, VOA, Deutsche Welle, Le Figaro, RFI and Le Monde.

As countries around the world seek to move to clean energy, international demand is growing for minerals such as cobalt and copper used in batteries for electric vehicles and other products. Our June 2020 report Mineral Concessions: Avoiding Conflict in DR Congo’s Mining Heartland analysed competition between industrial and artisanal miners as a source of tension in the country’s mineral-rich provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba. Crisis Group analysts profiled the report’s findings in a Financial Times op-ed. Mining Weekly also covered the report.

We published all three of these reports in English and French. Each had been viewed online more than 11,000 times by March 2021.

Hydropower dam on the road from Osh to Bishkek. April 2016, Kyrgyzstan. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Setting the Agenda

On 22 April 2020, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, President and CEO Robert Malley briefed the UN Security Council’s virtual Arria session on climate and security risks. Malley drew attention to climate change’s impact in Nigeria and the Sahel as well as the tensions over the Nile waters among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Without global action, he said, climate change could prove to be a slow-moving version of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In September 2020, Ghani and Malley published an opinion piece in Foreign Affairs titled “Climate Change Doesn’t Have to Stoke Conflict”. In keeping with our research findings, they argued that the ultimate risks to peace and security from climate change depend heavily on how states are governed. In other words, “climate matters when it comes to war and peace, but the politics and policies surrounding climate matter even more”.

Our message reached policymakers at the highest level.

In our December 2020 commentary “Repairing the Damage to U.S. Diplomacy in the UN Security Council”, our UN Director Richard Gowan pointed to the nexus between climate change and security as an area where the incoming Biden administration could focus its energies at the UN Security Council, as part of attempts to improve U.S. relations with fellow Council members.

At the end of 2020, Crisis Group highlighted climate change in its flagship publication “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2021” – the first time a transnational risk made this annual list. We argued that without urgent action, the danger of climate-related conflict will rise in the years ahead. We called on governments in at-risk countries to peacefully regulate access to resources and upon Western governments and companies to provide them with increased support to do so. By March 2021, the list had been viewed over 110,00 times on Crisis Group’s website (in English and Spanish), in addition to the audience that read the original in Foreign Policy. Our message reached policymakers at the highest level: the concept note for a UN Security Council debate on addressing climate-related risks to international peace and security, to be held in February 2021 and chaired by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, refers to our piece to explain the need for such a discussion at the Council.

We continued our efforts to keep climate issues high on the international agenda by including them among our annual list of eight priorities for the African Union in February 2021. Within weeks, 7,700 people had read it in English and French.

Informing the Public Debate

Throughout the first half of 2020, Crisis Group promoted interim steps to resolve the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. After U.S.-facilitated negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan broke down in late February, our 16 March statement “Nile Dam Talks: Unlocking a Dangerous Stalemate” recommended that the three parties pursue an interim deal to cover the first two years of reservoir filling in order to ease tensions and buy time for negotiation of a more comprehensive agreement.

As we stepped up our GERD-related advocacy from May onward, we became the leading organisation providing the media with analysis of the complex negotiations. In June, we published another statement “Nile Dam Talks: A Short Window to Embrace Compromise”, which underlined that all three countries urgently need to make concessions for a deal. To extend the reach of our analysis, we made maximum use of multimedia products, including an interactive timeline of events, videos and a podcast episode. Not counting the significant impact of our broad social media outreach on several channels in support of this new priority, more than 85,000 people viewed these materials from our overwhelmingly professional audience made up mainly of policymakers, diplomats, international officials, academics, civil society activists, businesspeople, researchers and reporters.