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Injustice: a driver of violent extremism?

As the countering violent extremism agenda becomes more prominent, Leanne McKay looks at why it shouldn’t supersede other development, peacebuilding and rule of law options available to tackle violence. She argues that more security-focused responses will not lead to the kind of successes required for peaceful and just societies.


As the countering violent extremism agenda becomes more prominent, Leanne McKay looks at why it shouldn’t supersede other development, peacebuilding and rule of law options available to tackle violence. She argues that more security-focused responses will not lead to the kind of successes required for peaceful and just societies.

Today, many countries are struggling to counter the effects of violent extremism (VE). The response by governments has generally been heavily security-focused, involving elements such as increased border monitoring and control, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and military defence. These security-focused responses are often coupled with the imposition of significant and long-lasting limitations to the exercise of rights and liberties of members of society, for example clamping down on freedoms of expression, the media, or civil society under the rubric of ‘national security’ concerns.

Consider for example: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T) Act of 2001; France’s expansion of its State of Emergency Act in November last year; or the comment by the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, speaking before parliament in September 2014: “Regrettably, for some time to come…the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.”

Security-focused responses are attractive to governments primarily because they can be implemented quickly and are visible – emergency laws are passed swiftly, armed forces are mobilised to urgent action, and politicians are able to demonstrate that they are taking serious and immediate measures to address violence. Yet, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted during his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (The Plan) earlier this year, these highly reactive, short-sighted responses, with “a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”

The relationship between justice (used here broadly to mean protection of rights and liberties) and security is critical to understanding and addressing drivers of violence, including VE. Both justice and security are critical for peaceful societies and the success of one depends on the success of the other. However, governments and practitioners tend to address them in silos, with detrimental results.  The New York Times story, published in late 2015 described how when US soldiers raised concerns about the sexual abuse of young Afghan boys by the Afghan commanders with whom they worked they were allegedly told by superiors to look the other way. The abuse was deemed a ‘cultural’ issue to be addressed by Afghan domestic law (if at all) and not by US soldiers there to ‘fight the Taliban’. As such, even when village elders subsequently expressed concern about these US-backed Afghan commanders to US military officials, nothing was done. A US congressman and former marine bluntly summarised the impact of this decision, stating: “Why would you trust the United States to fight the Taliban and restore justice in your country if we can’t keep your little kids from being raped by the people we put in power?” When local communities do not trust the people in charge of their daily safety and security needs and believe there is no availability of redress for harms committed against them, then neither justice nor security is present and the situation becomes ripe for further insecurity.

There is increasing recognition that security-focused responses have been inadequate in addressing VE, and accepted that there is a need for a comprehensive approach that “encompasses not only ongoing, essential security-based counter-terrorism measures, but also systematic preventive measures which directly address the drivers of violent extremism” (see UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism).

However, while the Plan puts forward more than 70 recommendations for action by UN member states at the global, regional and national levels, none of the activities are new. Development, peacebuilding and rule of law practitioners have been working for years on provision of education and economic opportunities, ensuring accountability for gross human rights violations, reforming prison systems, undertaking community policing initiatives and establishing civil society networks, in efforts to create peaceful and stable societies. The challenge now is that the Plan brings measures more associated with counter-terrorism work into direct contact and perhaps conflict with these other fields without recognising the role they already play in addressing drivers of violent extremism through non-military means. As the sudden rush to couch everything in countering violent extremism (CVE)/preventing violent extremism (PVE) language subsumes these non-military responses, some further challenges for practitioners are likely:

1) The Plan’s lack of distinction between a CVE-specific programme (one with a primary aim of addressing VE) and a CVE-related programme (one where the side effects may have a benefit for CVE efforts) risks blurring activity goals, targets and indicators. In an effort to link everything to CVE, project objectives risk becoming less driven by, and responsive to, the needs and concerns of the communities they are meant to assist, and more by donors’ domestic priorities and interests. This is reinforced when internal organisational and donor pressures have made many practitioners feel coerced into re-packaging or re-labelling their CVE-related work as CVE-specific in order to make it more fundable. The Plan explicitly encourages member states to identify additional funds to expand their CVE/PVE programming, fuelling practitioners’ concerns that policymakers will divert finite resources away from other critical needs.

2) Efforts to enhance justice risk being undermined by focusing on a single issue, such as VE, which is in itself a symptom of deeper problems. In a country where the justice system is weak or ineffective and the country is struggling to address violent extremism, priority may be given to training judges, prosecutors and police in terrorism prosecutions, establishing a counter-terrorism police unit or setting up counter-terrorism special courts. While these initiatives are not necessarily bad in and of themselves their effectiveness will be severely limited in a context where the average police officer is poorly trained, or where the basic tenets of trust and cooperation with the population are weak. This breakdown in trust ultimately causes more problems for a society including being a driver for the extremism the approach is meant to counter. Rebuilding trust between communities and the government is much more important than merely being a tactic to encourage community reporting of suspicious terrorist activities.

As such, actions to strengthen the state/society relationship, to address systemic corruption, weak administration of justice or a lack of access to justice all help to root a society in the rule of law. A society based on a fair, accountable and functioning rule of law is a society better able to withstand internal and external shocks, including VE.

3) Linked to the above is the fact that there are still many gaps in our knowledge about VE. Sometimes violence emerges as VE, but not all communities that experience a sense of injustice, real or perceived, resort to violence, and not all resort to VE – why? Does injustice that leads to VE need to be approached differently to injustice that results in conflict? And if so, how? Answering these questions requires a deep understanding of the perceived and actual experiences of (in)justice for individuals within the larger context of the complex socio-political power dynamics of a society – not just within the context of VE. Yet the Plan puts forward a list of drivers and solutions so specific that they risk closing the space for this necessary deeper enquiry.

4) The solutions put forward in the Plan are embedded within a technical, procedural, state-dominant framework focused on strengthening state justice institutions. This offers a very limited role for civil society, and usually has no engagement with non-state justice systems. It is an approach that has increasingly been criticised as flawed, incomplete, and failing to produce the results expected from the investment of billions of dollars and decades of effort to promote strengthened rule of law globally.

5) Finally, a major flaw with this framework is that it does not give priority to what I call the “3Ps” – people, power and politics. It does not explore the historical, cultural, political and social dynamics behind the current state of weak or absent rule of law. It does not ask, for example, why the systems and institutions are degraded in the first place, who benefits from maintaining the status quo, whether there is genuine political willingness for change, and what needs to be done to address the causal issues (rather than just the symptoms) of weak rule of law.

A growing movement of rule of law reformers is promoting a revised approach based on the idea that rule of law is an inherently political activity, at the heart of which is the relationship between the state and society. I call this the rule of law culture approach. Understanding the specific and unique state and social institutions of each context and the associated complex political, power, and human dynamics and interactions enables us to better identify the root causes of the problems we see. It requires giving consideration to drivers of societal stress on domestic, regional, and international levels, as well as sourcing information from multiple disciplines and subject areas of expertise beyond the justice sector, such as anthropologists, political scientists, social psychologists, historians and more. The approach also requires the participation and engagement of both government officials and members of society, recognising that enhancing rule of law is a process of change that must involve altering the assumptions, mind-sets, and behaviours of all people – officials and citizens alike.

Yet at an implementation level we know that such approaches are extremely challenging. Donors and programme implementers already have a tendency to copy and paste ‘successful’ programmes from one context to another without any adaptation, which too often reinforces a disconnect between government interests and community needs (which can further alienate communities and undermine government-society relations).

It is disappointing therefore that the Plan provides such scant guidance for what must be a thorough analysis of the problem of VE. The risk is that money will be wasted on projects that at best ‘do no harm’ and at worst may even provoke further violence.

However, there is an opportunity to further advance a more holistic approach to peace, stability and justice – an approach to be valued on its own merits, not just when the words CVE precede it. The Plan proposes a long-term, comprehensive, non-violent approach to countering VE that requires more research and the engagement of other disciplines. Can we leverage the rhetoric and funding for an expanded approach to CVE to support the development of a more holistic, adaptive, systematic, people-centric approach to justice? An approach that acknowledges that where governments show an unwillingness to protect the rights of all citizens and to abide by rule of law, a lack of trust develops between those who govern and those who are governed?

That way we might avoid yet more responses to VE that are overly securitised and ignore critical elements for success. Lessons should be learnt from traditional approaches to promoting justice and the rule of law. A purely technical approach to justice is inadequate. An array of actors must be engaged in a systematic process of identifying root causes of injustice and violence and determining contextually relevant solutions. Both government and society must be fully engaged in all stages of this process, with serious attention given to carefully and intentionally rebuilding a relationship of trust between different sections of a society and the state.

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