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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
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
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.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Q&A / Global

What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?

The annual United Nations General Assembly high-level session in the last week of September offered leaders and diplomats the chance to address today’s gravest crises. UN Director Richard Gowan and Senior Analyst Ashish Pradhan reflect on what happened and its potential impact on crisis diplomacy.

What were the most important trends observable at the General Assembly?

The main priority for many participants appeared to be de-escalating crises in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the 14 September attacks on Saudi oil installations. There was a huge amount of speculation at the start of the week over whether U.S. President Donald Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. While that proved impossible – Iran refused a meeting without guarantees on sanctions relief, and the U.S. was unwilling to offer them prior to the meeting – some lower-profile discussions took place on how to solve active conflicts in the region.

Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation.

There was notable diplomatic activity around Yemen and Libya. The UK, Kuwait and Sweden convened a new “small group” on Yemen, which also included the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, in an effort to coordinate diplomatic support to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ peacemaking efforts. The participants envisage expanding the group to include some of the powers directly involved in the Yemeni civil war, potentially including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in future meetings of this group. Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation. This could lead to mutual de-escalation steps that could support the start of a meaningful UN process.

France and Italy pulled together a similar discussion on restarting the UN-led peace process in Libya. That process fell apart after General Khalifa Haftar (who controls the east of the country) tried to seize the capital Tripoli earlier this year, sparking a war between his forces and those nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Security Council has been divided over how to act on Libya since then, so this was a chance to reboot the UN approach. Significantly, the Franco-Italian meeting involved not only Egypt and the UAE, which support Haftar, but also Turkey, which backs the GNA.

These meetings at the UN are not decisive in themselves, but send signals about powers’ willingness to cooperate on fixing a crisis. In principle, the fact that France and Italy co-convened talks on Libya was positive, as Paris has ties to Haftar while Rome favours the GNA. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Haftar announced his willingness to engage in UN-led talks last Thursday, the same day as the meeting. But the stagecraft wasn’t perfect. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj used his speech to the General Assembly to brand the General a “war criminal”.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee – involving both supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – to meet in Geneva under UN auspices this autumn. The UN has been working on this idea as a means to frame a post-war settlement for almost two years, although many of Assad’s enemies fear it will be a sham. It does nothing to address the most pressing threat in Syria, a potentially brutal battle for the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria’s north west. Nor are representatives of the Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces – which hold a quarter of the country – set to participate.

Still, after a long period in which the UN has been adrift over Syria, this is at least a small win for Guterres. And overall the diplomatic activity on the Middle East and North Africa – even including President Trump’s apparent openness to talking with Rouhani – suggested that both the P5 and regional powers see a common interest in lowering the temperature in the region.

Did leaders also focus on crises in Africa?

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel [...] generated a high level of concern.

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, where jihadi groups are gaining territory and inter-communal bloodshed is increasing, generated a high level of concern. French President Emmanuel Macron made a pitch for strengthening both the UN peace operation in Mali and regional counter-terrorism efforts in his General Assembly speech, and Secretary-General Guterres said the world was “losing ground” in the face of violence in the region. While the General Assembly offers a good platform for leaders to raise the alarm on a regional crisis like this, Macron’s focus on a military-led response overlooks that the various military missions already operating in the Sahel have been unable to check escalating violence. As Crisis Group has argued for several years, a more coherent political strategy, potentially including dialogue with a wider array of armed groups, need to complement security operations.

There was also an unusual high-level meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission (normally a bit of an afterthought in General Assembly week) on the situation in Burkina Faso, where jihadi groups have been gaining ground this year. Discussions about humanitarian assistance and community-level conflict resolution were constructive, although some participants felt that the ideas under discussion still do not match the gravity of the brewing crisis and the level of violence on the ground.

Leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

More positively, leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hamdok, who leads the transitional administration in Khartoum that is meant to pave the way to civilian rule after the fall of Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, handled the opportunity deftly. He won plaudits for signing a pledge of media freedom and agreeing to let the High Commissioner for Human Rights set up a network of offices in Sudan, including in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and East Sudan. Sudan faces an enormous economic crisis, and Hamdok used his trip to New York to call for more economic aid and the end to U.S. sanctions. While his government still relies on the goodwill of the Sudanese military and security services, the Prime Minister made a convincing case for backing the transition.

Tshisekedi has also been trying to win international friends since he took office in Kinshasa at the start of this year after contested elections. His priority has been improving relations with Rwanda and Uganda in particular, with the goal of cooperating against the numerous armed groups that destabilise the eastern DRC. He continued this campaign in New York, participating in a meeting on the Great Lakes to discuss proposals – apparently originally tabled by Rwanda – to create a new regional security mechanism. This would reportedly permit Ugandan and Rwandan troops to conduct anti-militia operations on Congolese soil with the DRC’s permission, possibly supported by Angolan and Tanzanian troops.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi.

Regional security cooperation is certainly needed to tackle eastern DRC’s myriad problems, but President Tshisekedi will have to proceed cautiously. Uganda and Rwanda have intervened in the past in DRC and local memories of abuses their forces committed are a major factor in local and regional tensions. Tshisekedi ought to ensure that any help from his neighbours fits into a political and security plan that makes sense for the DRC. But at least he is talking constructively with his neighbours, and also seems keen to have positive relations with the UN, in contrast to Kabila whose relations with the world body at the end of his tenure were acrimonious.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi – with possible spillover effects in the DRC in particular – around elections next year. The UN still has an envoy to Burundi, but many Security Council members have lost confidence in UN officials’ ability to monitor (let alone affect) the political situation. No new ideas on what to do emerged at the General Assembly.

What other crises were priorities in New York?

There was an awful lot of political theatre around Venezuela, with delegations representing both President Nicolás Maduro and his rival Juan Guaidó attending the General Assembly. But while three high-level events covered the crisis – including one involving President Trump – there was more posturing than real diplomacy over how to find a political solution. The only notable development may have been in Trump’s main speech to the General Assembly, in which he implicitly ruled out any direct U.S. intervention (he noted that Washington would “await” the fall of Maduro, rather than force it). This will have disappointed some of Guaidó’s more hardline supporters, who have continued to hope for U.S. military support. As Crisis Group has argued throughout the crisis, the best way out of the Maduro-Guaidó stand-off remains a negotiated solution involving early, internationally monitored presidential elections as well as political guarantees for both the ruling chavistas and opposition. That did not come any closer last week.

Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda.

Perhaps the General Assembly’s most disturbing feature was the obvious level of Indian-Pakistani animosity over Kashmir. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not only condemned India’s decision to remove Kashmir’s status as a state and ensuing security operations there, but raised the possibility of an all-out war involving nuclear weapons. Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda, sending Security Council diplomats daily briefings on human rights abuses, while India insists that it is solely an internal issue. In that vein, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not refer to it at all in his General Assembly speech, which came shortly before Khan’s. The crisis will, at best, continue to poison relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, although the UN seems unlikely to be able to do much about it. While China demanded a Security Council meeting on Kashmir in August, the first since 1971, the majority of members appeared disinclined to irritate the Indians.

Also on the Asian front, there were a number of meetings during the General Assembly on the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, but no real sign of a viable solution. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underlined that her country cannot bear the burden of housing the refugees indefinitely. In one potentially interesting development, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss setting up a new trilateral working group on repatriation. Beijing has refused to let the Security Council take any serious action over the Rohingya crisis, and may be looking for ways to settle a situation that complicates its Belt and Road Initiative on its terms rather than via the UN.

China’s domestic and international behaviour came up in a number of meetings. The U.S. and UK co-convened one on the situation of the Uighurs in western China. Western diplomats also used the meeting with President Tshisekedi noted above to raise concerns about China’s growing influence in central Africa. These criticisms are indicative of a hardening of Western attitudes toward China at the UN in the last year.

The U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council.

As Crisis Group has noted in the past, the U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council, agreeing to avoid major public battles similar to those with Russia over Syria. But there are signs of this accommodation cracking. Western diplomats raised the Uighur question in the Security Council this summer, while China came close to vetoing a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in September as it did not reference the benefits of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for Afghans (Beijing eventually backed down and allowed the resolution through in return for a reference to “regional cooperation and connectivity”). These small spats are not yet significantly impeding the work of the UN. But they may be early signs that deepening Sino-American competition will eventually become a more serious obstacle to multilateral crisis diplomacy.

Contributors

UN Director
RichardGowan1
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
ashishspradhan