Friday, March 4th 2016
Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall spoke in Washington on “Countering Violent Extremism: How Human Rights and Good Governance Help Prevent Terrorism” on February 29, 2016.
Explaining the administration’s way forward on CVE, Under Secretary Sewall discussed “a more comprehensive, preventive, and civilian-centered approach,” “a broader approach,” “an integrated and holistic approach,” and a “citizen-centered approach.”
In the first decade after 9/11, she noted, “the U.S. arrayed a range of counterterrorism tools to keep Americans safe: from airport security and intelligence collection, to military operations, and security assistance.” But “terrorist groups exploited local grievances about insecurity, unemployment, sectarianism, or marginalization to merge with militias, criminal networks, and insurgencies.”
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “useful to think about,” she noted. “At the bottom are needs like physical security, food, and shelter. Further up are more abstract needs for community, identity, and purpose. When these go unmet, they can act like ‘push’ factors that make people vulnerable to the ‘pull’ of violent ideologies.” It’s necessary, then, to address “the underlying grievances that violent extremists exploit.”
Although she mentioned “twisted narratives and recruitment tactics violent extremists wield to influence communities and target vulnerable individuals,” the responses outlined by Under Secretary Sewall, to this reader, were strong on development and light on Public Diplomacy and communication. The religion factor was scarcely mentioned.
Among the initiatives she highlighted were “an in-house unit to analyze the underlying drivers of violent extremism in different global contexts,” “a new approach to programming using pooled funds to incentivize collaborative problem diagnosis and integrated program design,” a “pilot project for what we hope will be a growing element of U.S. foreign assistance through a new Global Counterterrorism Partnership Fund,” “cutting-edge analysis and scholarship,” “the launch of RESOLVE, a new network for researchers,” “a new platform to engage and assist non-governmental actors,” Denmark’s “pioneering efforts to de-radicalize and rehabilitate violent extremists” with mental counseling and vocational skills, and a United Nations Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism which “provided a framework for how all member states and bodies like UNESCO and the U.N. Development Program can contribute to this common effort.”
Here are some key quotes:
- Dealing with “push” factors essentially means addressing the underlying grievances that violent extremists exploit. President Obama explained that when “people – especially young people – feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption – that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.”
- CVE calls for an integrated and holistic approach to address the “push” and “pull” factors that can fuel violent extremism.
- That requires a broader set of actors, including civil society, business, religious leaders, women, youth, international bodies and former violent extremists. This is what we are calling a “whole of society” approach.
- When police abuse communities, or when security forces harass or detain entire neighborhoods on mere suspicion, they leave a trail of grievance and mistrust that violent extremists eagerly exploit.
- When prisons mix petty criminals with hardcore terrorists, governments literally create captive audiences for hateful ideologies -- needlessly expanding the threat. Additionally, instances of government abuse and torture push prisoners further down the path of radicalization.
- When corruption goes unaddressed, citizens may conclude that government exists not to serve but to exploit. Secretary Kerry called corruption a “radicalizer,” because it “destroys faith in legitimate authority.” In such a vacuum, violent extremists that portray themselves as pious and untainted can offer a seemingly seductive alternative.
- When there are no jobs and prospects for a better future, when people struggle to feed and house their families, feelings of hopelessness and indignity can be openings for violent extremists peddling false promises of a better deal.
- And finally, when governments respond to terrorist propaganda by strangling freedoms of speech and assembly, they risk silencing the voices most needed to fight violence and hatred. Clamping down on political opposition under the guise of fighting terrorism has become all too common, yet it can backfire spectacularly by radicalizing the non-violent individual and confirming violence as the only route to political change.
- Time and again, nations around the world – including ours – relearn the harsh lessons of framing security as a zero-sum tradeoff with fundamental human freedoms. A comprehensive CVE approach recognizes this as a false dichotomy and highlights the importance of good governance and human rights protections in preventing the next generation of violent extremism.
- But even in places with a strong history of democracy and human rights, like Western Europe, the United States, and India, violent extremism remains a real issue. Take India for example, which has proven quite resistant to recruitment attempts by terrorist groups like Daesh – in large part thanks to its tradition of religious tolerance, which has been a powerful antidote to its poisonous perversion of Islam.
- But recent events, like the religious conversions coerced by Hindu extremists, or open speculation by some public officials about the loyalty of Indian Muslims, fuel bigotry and open the gateways to violence. In their wake, speaking out for religious freedom is critical – not just as a universal value, but as a source of resilience against extremism.
- That’s also true here in the United States, where we struggle with our own issues of intolerance. What matters, though, is how citizens and leaders respond. When a teacher mistook a Muslim student’s science project for a bomb and sent him to the police, President Obama welcomed him to the White House. And in a time of heightened anxiety following the attacks in San Bernardino, he reminded the country that Muslim-Americans are our neighbors, co-workers, and soldiers on our front lines.
- The multiple dimensions of countering violent extremism – protecting rights, providing economic opportunity, mentoring youth, holding security forces accountable, supporting families – go beyond a military response to take a citizen-centered approach to the threat.
- This is not the work of soldiers and spies, but of mayors and moms, of communities and faith leaders. This is not altruism. Investing in this approach is essential in order to defeat and contain the current terror threat.
- CVE is a long-term effort. Jobs and bright futures won’t appear overnight; trust between communities and security forces can take years to build; and local leaders and citizens must find their own routes to reach youth and vulnerable individuals and confront violent extremist propaganda. This work will likely continue across generations.