The rhetoric & reality of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

The rhetoric needs to be supplemented with concrete steps in the form of empowering weaker institutions


Asim Zia March 04, 2015
The writer is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Vermont (USA), a Fellow at the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics and a Senior Research Fellow at the Earth System Governance Project

Apparently, a large spectrum of policy approaches were proposed in the recently concluded US White House summit organised around the theme of “countering violent extremism”. Ministerial-level representatives from more than 60 countries and UN agencies, academics and civil society magnates, including Pakistan’s interior minister, discussed various causes, consequences, governance mechanisms and policy approaches to tackle the growing menace of violent extremism. As with many other complex problems, the proposed policy approaches struggle to balance various short-term ‘stick’ and ‘iron-fisted’ policy instruments with long-term ‘carrot’ and ‘reconciliation’ strategies. Short-term operational imperatives to provide security and maintain the rule of law require sticks, but there is a growing consensus that in the long run, sticks alone will not work in solving the complex problem of countering violent extremism. Some form of carrots, political reconciliation and softer approaches (e.g. human rights, democratic institutions) will also need to be implemented by international (e.g. UN) and national level institutions.

The joint statement, issued after the three-day summit, reflects this growing consensus that intelligence-gathering, military force and law enforcement “alone will not solve —and when misused can in fact exacerbate — the problem of violent extremism”. Rather, the statement emphasises comprehensive rule of law and community-based policy approaches to solve this problem. The statement emphasises that policy approaches and strategies must “be developed and implemented in full compliance with international law, in particular international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law, as well as with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter”.

Herein lies the rub between the rhetoric and the reality: many countries facing the menace of violent extremism, whether Muslim or Western, are themselves not known to be followers of human rights, refugee and humanitarian laws. Many policy and governance responses, ranging from the Patriot Act in the US to counterterrorism courts in developing countries, violate the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international human rights laws. Many countries affected by the menace of violent extremism are governed by kings and military dictators, or even sham democracies. Their record on the implementation of international human rights laws reflects a problematic feature of this complex problem: mere rhetoric on human rights and UN charters alone cannot replace the reality of political oppression and economic poverty that afflicts billions of people in the 60 or so countries that were represented in this summit, which in turn feeds the growing menace of violent extremism.

A transformational shift in political institutions, both at international and national levels in many of these 60-odd countries is required to eliminate the root causes of violent extremism. This shift must establish and promote democratic institutions, human rights, accountability and even compassion to enable this transformational shift. Any sincere effort to induce this transformational shift will, however, need the powers that be to cede their current power and give space to humanitarian and democratisation processes, which is not something that seems to be happening. So, the spiral of violent extremism is deepening in a perverse positive feedback: political and economic oppression feeds violent extremism, which in turn induces more oppression in the form of ‘stick’-based short-term operational policy approaches that do not always respect the UN human rights charter. More sticks in turn produce more violent extremists!

Breaking out of this perverse spiralling feedback loop is not going to be an easy task, but there are some scenarios in which this is possible. One of these scenarios could be realised by pursuing a ‘portfolio’ policy approach (wherein both carrots and sticks are pursued in tandem) as well as through democratic governance (wherein checks and balances between different institutions — executive, legislative, judiciary and the media — within and across these countries are established and maintained). Different institutions can act as watchdogs of other different institutions. A pragmatic way to induce this shift is to balance the resource and power allocation across these four types of institutions. In many dictatorial countries, the balance of power and resource allocation is typically tilted towards the executive, while legislative and judiciary-based institutions are malnourished and under-resourced. Many sham democracies have legislative institutions but they do not wield adequate accountability power to hold the executive or the judiciary accountable. Finally, the judiciary in many of these 60-odd countries is over-burdened with enormous amount of civil and criminal lawsuits, but under-capacitated due to shortage of resources. In a portfolio policy approach, financial and human resources can be systematically re-allocated by the UN and other national and international counter-extremism agencies to strengthen the weaker institutions, in particular the legislatures and the judiciary, but also the executive/civil bureaucracy and the media. An effective approach will require both carrots and sticks, with the precaution that sticks be used under the governing principles of the UN human rights charter and humanitarian norms.

Along with this, there needs to be a parallel pursuit of short-term ‘rule of law’ implementation with the long-term ideal of democratic governance, which might provide a pathway out of the current ‘reality’ of the growing menace of violent extremism. Mere rhetoric in summits and conferences is not going to be enough. The rhetoric needs to be supplemented with concrete steps in the form of empowering weaker institutions, in particular legislatures, political parties, judiciary, civil bureaucracies and the media. Financial and human resource reallocations towards these traditionally weaker institutions could be the first litmus test towards this transformational shift for eradicating violent extremism in the long haul.

Published in The Express Tribune, March  5th,  2015.

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COMMENTS (3)

S.R.H. Hashmi | 6 years ago | Reply The writer says, and rightly so, that political and economic oppression creates violent extremism and attempt to eliminate it through hard-fisted approach, which could involve violation of international law, in particular international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law, as well as principles and purposes of the UN Charter" results in raising violence to even higher levels. The writer therefore suggests that in order to eliminate the root causes of violent extremism in about sixty countries where the problem is acute, a transformational shift is required in political institutions at both international and national levels. And bringing about this shift would require promoting democratic institutions, human rights, accountability and even compassion which in turn would necessitate maintaining proper checks and balances and empowering weaker institutions, in particular legislatures, political parties, judiciary, civil bureaucracies and the media. However, the snag is that this transformational shift can only be brought about if the executive enjoying absolute power agrees to cede it to give space to humanitarian and democratization processes. Now, this is much easier said than done because those enjoying absolute powers are unlikely to cede it out of the goodness of their heart. And here the writer recommends the UN and other national and international counter-extremism agencies to step in and strengthen the weaker institutions, in particular the legislatures, the judiciary, the executive/civil bureaucracy and media. He suggests a 'carrots and sticks' policy, with 'sticks' consistent with humanitarian norms and UN human rights charter. The suggestions are excellent in theory but impossible to apply in practice in view of the fact that the world is divided into different blocks with opposing interests most of the time. Moreover, supposedly the strongest of the international organizations, the United Nations has been made impotent by the indiscriminate use of veto power by its five permanent members, with the worst culprit being the United States. And here we had a summit at the White House with the theme "Countering violent extremism" with ministerial level participation by over sixty countries (including Pakistan) as well as UN agencies, academics and civil society magnets organized by the United States. What a cruel joke? It may be pertinent to mention here that a few decades back, the only sources of violent extremism were Kashmir and the Israeli-Palestinian issues which have remained unsolved despite involvement of the UN. Even the additional involvement of the United States as well as the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, could not resolve it because of the partisan attitude of US, as also of its allies. Moreover, we know that the US and Britain launched an invasion on Iraq which the then UN Secretary General declared to be illegal. And among the various fabricated reasons given by George Bush for the attack was the one to give Iraq 'democracy'. And despite seeing what the foreign intervention does to countries, their successors did the same to Syria and Libya, messing up both. In fact, even the emergence of Daesh (IS) can be traced back to Iraq invasion which unleashed forces that Saddam Hussain had successfully kept under check. And with such dubious characters organizing the summit to consider ways and means to counter violent extremism, it would have to be an ultra optimist to expect useful results. Karachi
Asim Zia | 6 years ago | Reply Agreed, yes, the right approach is to act NOW! But mere operational response through weapons is not gonna solve the problem. Precision weapons such as drones and so forth are being marketed and tested across these 60 countries, but no corresponding international norms are being either set or implemented to protect human rights violations accruing from such precision weapon technologies!
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