Countering Violent Extremism: What Are the Key Challenges for UN?

A group of 23 people who attempted to pass into Syria from Turkey, allegedly to join ISIS, are detained and sent for medical treatment. Kilis, Turkey, August 11, 2015 (Kemal Karagoz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to soon roll out a plan of action to improve multilateral efforts on countering violent extremism (CVE), or what the UN now increasingly prefers to call “preventing” violent extremism. As the international community grapples with an ever more complex terrorist threat, the discipline has provided an effective and sustainable strategy for those on the frontline of policy responses. Understanding how the UN is best positioned to advance it is therefore of considerable importance in maintaining global peace and security into the future.

The United Nations Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism will cap an intense year for new policies and programs in the field, which was kicked off by the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism hosted by US President Barack Obama. This was followed by a number of regional conferences in countries such as Singapore, Norway, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Australia, Algeria, Kenya, and Mauritania. There was also an intense focus on CVE on the margins of the opening debate of the 70th General Assembly of the UN, when Obama convened a leader’s summit to build on his call to action from 2014.

For many who have long been working on a comprehensive response to terrorism and violent extremism, CVE is synonymous with a focus on prevention that reflects the need for more nuanced measures and responses than the use of force. Loosely defined, CVE is a basket of measures that encompass community engagement, development, education, strategic communications, and public-private partnerships intended to reduce the appeal of and support for extremist groups, and enhance resilience against them. These might include, for example, community engagement initiatives to help identify and respond early to manifestations of violent extremism; media programming to foster tolerance and civic values; working with mothers of current fighters and victims; or promoting youth employment and education programs for former members of extremist groups.

The UN has a number of comparative advantages in the field. The normative framework established by its long-standing Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy underscored the need to address conditions conducive to terrorism and human rights violations. Security Council Resolution 2178 adopted in 2014 was also innovative for a resolution enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, in that it explicitly highlights the importance of CVE and engaging with civil society and community stakeholders. Moreover, the UN’s unparalleled convening power can bring together world leaders, experts, and practitioners for collective action, including the members of its Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, which comprises over 30 entities and partners.

However, with a proliferation of actors focusing on the issue and the persistent challenge of effecting and maintaining internal coordination and strategic cohesion across implementation efforts, the UN also faces a number of obstacles in effectively leveraging its comparative advantages.

The Secretary-General’s new plan of action will come nearly a decade after the General Assembly adopted the global strategy on counterterrorism by consensus, which is no mean feat for an institution that has for over seven decades failed to deliver an agreed definition of terrorism. The new plan represents an important opportunity for the UN and member states to reaffirm their commitments and provide incentives for a more integrated set of implementation efforts. Moreover, it should foster greater reflection on if and how the UN might more effectively mainstream efforts into their country level programming, for example, through some of the instruments that can allow for more long-term and sustainable engagement at national levels. It allows the international community to think critically about CVE.

Beyond this, the biennial review of the global strategy on counterterrorism slated for June 2016 offers a critical opportunity to revisit multilateral efforts and consider whether the UN’s toolkit and resources are effective in the face of an evolving threat landscape very different to that in September 2001.

There is a danger that these political processes will be reduced to a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise by UN member states not investing sufficient political capital to ensure that the outcome is best suited to their strategic goals. While much analysis over the coming months will focus on the activities and impact of the Secretariat’s work, it is imperative that member states engage in the process to inform the outcome.

The practice of CVE has suffered from a lack of clarity in its definition and scope. Moreover, many policymakers and practitioners have used the terms “counterterrorism” and “CVE” interchangeably, when in reality they represent very different approaches. The emphasis on prevention, human rights, civil society, and enhancing community resilience has been a hallmark of CVE policies and objectives—whose nature and scope are more akin to development—and conflict prevention and mitigation efforts.

As such, CVE need not only be a tool for the prevention of terrorism or violent extremism. Where violent extremist ideologies and groups threaten social cohesion and socioeconomic stability and provoke armed violence, CVE can align well with a host of conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts. This difference in understanding of CVE has led to many conflating more law enforcement-centric approaches with prevention tools that focus on leveraging the toolkit of “soft power.”

Despite growing interest in CVE, funding opportunities appear to still disproportionately favor those law-enforcement centric approaches, and engagement with civil society has been problematic when undertaken outside a truly consultative process. Civil society actors have voiced concerns about the stigmatization of particular communities and the “securitization” of their work. There is a potential for abuse as intrusive preventive and responsive measures are adopted and short-term responses are sought to what is a long-term challenge. However, rather than make the case for dismissing CVE efforts, these concerns underscore the need to get it right.

It is hard to keep pace with extremists who are constantly employing new methods and levels of brutality and changing the nature of conflict in many regions. Lines between “rebels,” “insurgents,” “criminals,” and “terrorists” are blurring in places like Mali, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Groups including the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) present a new iteration of the terrorist group; one whose legitimacy is premised not only on the cause it purports to fight for, but also its ability to actually implement its principles of governance, justice, and the distribution of resources. Stories of teenagers leaving comfortable homes in Western countries to travel to ISIS-controlled lands baffle policymakers and communities but speak to a crisis among youths about identity, belonging, perceptions of injustice and a hardening of social, cultural, and sectarian lines.

Prevention is therefore more critical than ever. Efforts to further CVE need to address some of the criticisms put forward and adapt to enhance their reach and effectiveness. Governments are often not the best interlocutor on these issues—communities, experts, the private sector, and the media are all key ingredients to making CVE more effective and sustainable. The field needs to devolve from a government-led exercise to a community and locally driven one, though government and international support will still be fundamental to ensure the policy space and resources necessary for such work.

To date, the UN’s work on counterterrorism has remained largely insulated from its broader peace and security, development, and humanitarian work. This has been deliberate in some instances, for understandable reasons, but in others is a product of inertia and a lack of cooperation across the bureaucracy. However, it is likely that conflicts to come will demand a firmer UN response in decisions regarding peace operations, field missions, and political engagement.

The upcoming plan of action on preventing violent extremism and the review of the global strategy on counterterrorism can therefore also create a basis for a more strategic vision across the system on where and how the UN is best positioned to address threats. Moreover, the process represents a valuable opportunity to shape more concrete implementation efforts and imbue prevention with an urgency that reflects the scale of the challenge. As both a stage and an actor in itself, the UN can no longer afford to operate as if the threats it confronts operate in isolation from one another. It must ensure it can be responsive and adaptable to contemporary realities in order to ensure its relevance in the 21st century.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is Head of Research and Analysis at the Global Center on Cooperative Security@NaureenCFink