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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
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
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.

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.