A new UN report underscores the “lack of a robust scientific basis” for policies and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), as well as the “complete absence of human rights-based monitoring and evaluation, including by United Nations entities.” It goes on to assert that “only rights-affirming and rights-focused policies will have long-term success in preventing violence.”

The report, Human rights impact of policies and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism (A/HRC/43/46), was issued Feb. 21, 2020, by the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin.

While P/CVE has become a centerpiece of counterterrorism efforts, the special rapporteur expresses concern that the definition of violent extremism “remains opaque and deeply contested,” warning that the broad application of the term is fraught with peril. Both the law enforcement programs aimed at increasing the number of people convicted of terrorism crimes and the measures and the social and economic measures that address the long-term challenges faced by marginalized communities and individuals” present human rights challenges. The special rapporteur also expresses concern regarding the use of the term “extremism” rather than “violent extremism,” which can stifle non-violent groups for political purposes. For example, P/CVE “increasingly functions as a device to silence, limit the scope of and target civil society actors, when, paradoxically, advocacy for human rights is construed by the State as a form of ‘extremism,’ giving States the leeway … to target civil society actors and human rights defenders as ‘extremists’,” the report notes.  This disregards the role of civil society in advancing human rights, paving the way “for more effective prevention strategies, through both pathways of resistance to terrorist action and mitigation of the attraction of radical or violent extremism,” according to the special rapporteur.

Despite claims that P/CVE works, there is almost no robust monitoring of these programs, leading to a lack of evidence-based practices. As such, the debate around these programs is dominated by “private actors and consultants who are self-proclaimed experts or influenced by government policies that continue to pursue issues that have been scientifically disproven,” the report notes. At the same time, a scholarly debate is emerging over whether radicalization is predictive of terrorism. The special rapporteur is particularly concerned about regulation over what can be called the “pre-criminal” or “pre-terrorist” space, which “criminalizes legitimately protected rights under international and domestic law, destabilizes fundamental tenets of the rule of law, including legal certainty, proportionality and non-discrimination and renders groups and individuals as ‘suspect’ often primarily on the basis of stereotypes concerning religious or ethnic groups and geographical location,” the report explains.

The special rapporteur recommends that all P/CVE programs respect international human rights law and that states that regulate “extremism” should repeal these laws, policies and programs. At the same time, states should address the “conditions conducive to violent extremism and terrorism, including weak governance, human rights violations, poor rule of law and corruption,” the report states, adding that “only sustained engagement with the complexity of those conditions will fruitfully address violent extremism.”

Read the full report.