Countries Are Eroding Human Rights by Stigmatizing Ethnic and Religious Groups Under the Guise of Countering Violence

A United Nations official is warning that worldwide programs to counter and prevent violent extremism rely on discredited theories of radicalization, and elusive definitions of terrorism, to implement intrusive state measures that stigmatize entire ethnic, religious and indigenous groups.


Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, concluded in a recent report to the Human Rights Council that such strategies threaten the most fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Despite these dangers, preventing violent extremism initiatives have proliferated across the globe, “often characterized as the ‘soft’ cousin of counter-terrorism initiatives,” notes Emmerson. In January, the UN Secretary-General released a plan of action, following a resolution passed in 2014 by the Security Council. The European Union has a region-wide strategy, and numerous states have taken up such programs.

The United Kingdom’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” (Prevent) program has been widely opposed, including from within parliament, for its exclusive targeting and criminalization of Muslim communities. The U.S. version, known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), has also stirred considerable opposition from Muslim-American communities, which report that they are the sole targets in all three pilot programs. Despite the disturbing civil rights implications, both initiatives are expanding into public school systems, with the FBI recently releasing new guidelines for the broad surveillance of high school students across the country.

The repressive reach of such initiatives is rooted in their semantic and conceptual flaws, argues Emmerson. Invoking the ill-defined threat of violent extremism, which is sometimes conflated with terrorism, such strategies are based on a “simplistic understanding of the process as a fixed trajectory to violent extremism with identifiable markers along the way,” he writes. In reality, the expert notes, there is no “single determining feature” or profile of a violent extremist.

In the United States, the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalization has roots in red scare and McCarthy-era crackdowns on those deemed subversive and threatening by the government.

In an oral statement delivered to the United Nations on March 10, the American Civil Liberties Union agreed with Emmerson’s concerns. “Despite years of research in the United States and elsewhere, there is no identifiable path from belief to violence, nor any reliable indicators to identify those who might be vulnerable,” the organization noted. Such observations are verified by decades of scholarly research and the U.S. government’s own findings. Yet in a vacuum of empirical evidence, these programs continue to grow more extensive.

When these discredited theories meet state power, the result is highly discriminatory, notes Emmerson. “On paper, most strategies to counter violent extremism are generic,” he writes. “In practice, however, they tend to target specific groups determined to be most ‘at risk’ of being drawn to violent extremism… Such an approach can be discriminatory and stigmatize various minority, ethnic, religious or indigenous groups.”

These heavily securitized programs “limit the space in which civil society operates” and criminalize the most basic rights to free speech, notes Emmerson. They justify cruel crackdowns on refugees and asylum-seekers and cut-backs to internet freedoms.

The targeting of children and schools, meanwhile, “may lead pupils and students to self-censor to avoid being branded ‘extremist’, cause teachers and other staff to view pupils and students as potential threats, or avoid discussing certain issues or inviting guest speakers whose views may be controversial," he warns.

Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project, told AlterNet that "one of the most troubling aspects of countering violent extremism programs that are developing worldwide is the tendency to view children through a securitized lens. When we do that we will inevitably see the erosion of the trust that is so important to proper learning and allows children to thrive, be curious, ask questions and voice opinions in a safe learning environment. Viewing children as threats is not good for children, education or society."

Faisa Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told AlterNet that Emmerson’s report is “really important because, until now, what we’ve seen is the UN rushing headlong into countering violent extremism programs without attention to the human rights risks.”

“What this report does is lay out a map of the different risks and illustrate how they came to be," continued Patel, who just returned from Geneva where she witnessed Emmerson deliver his findings. "This is an important step in having a conversation about countering violent extremism that is not one-sided.”

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