Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration hosted a summit in Washington D.C. on countering violent extremism. With terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Boko Haram massacring people with relative impunity, high ranking government officials from around the world, representatives from the United Nations, and experts in the field came together to discuss how best to counter such groups.
Without trivializing the essential role of military operations, there is a growing consensus that a comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach is needed to effectively counter terrorism. A military response alone does not address the root causes which enable the formation and continued operation of extremist organizations, and can be counter-productive by fueling anti-Western propaganda (drone warfare has been particularly contentious in this regard).
An important component of this multi-dimensional approach is the promotion and protection of human rights. This sentiment was echoed by both President Obama and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
As he sought to rally the world behind a renewed attack on terrorism, President Obama argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.
But the challenge of his approach was staring him right in the face. His audience of invited guests, putative allies in a fresh international counterterrorism campaign, included representatives from some of the world’s least democratic and most repressive countries.
Critics say the terrorism fight has simply enabled autocratic regimes to go after their political foes without worrying about American disapproval. Egypt’s leaders, for instance, have moved to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group they deem too radical. “It is futile to distinguish between bad terrorists, which must be defeated, and good terrorists, which can be accommodated,” Mr. Shoukry said.
The White House acknowledged the disconnect between advocating human rights and teaming up with human rights violators. But aides said it was one Mr. Obama had learned to live with, given the importance of maintaining an international coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terror threats.
“It’s a perennial challenge of the U.S. government that some of our partners are much more aggressive than others in how they define their domestic terrorist challenge,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. That dynamic is “most obvious in Egypt, where essentially there’s been a very broad brush in terms of who represents a terrorist threat.”
“When people spew hatred toward others because of their faith or because they’re immigrants, it feeds into terrorist narratives,” Mr. Obama said. “It feeds a cycle of fear and resentment and a sense of injustice upon which extremists prey. And we can’t allow cycles of suspicion to tear the fabrics of our countries.”
“Let there be no doubt,” Mr. Ban proclaimed to a room full of high-level delegates including US Secretary of State John Kerry, “The emergence of a new generation of transnational terrorist groups including Da’esh [or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Boko Haram is a grave threat to international peace and security.”
“These extremists are pursuing a deliberate strategy of shock and awe – beheadings, burnings, and snuff films designed to polarize and terrorize, and provoke and divide us,” the UN chief added, commending UN Member States for their political will to defeat terrorist groups and at the same time, urging them to stay “mindful of the pitfalls.”
“Many years of our experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership and an utter disregard for human dignity and human rights have causes tremendous frustration and anger on the part of people who we serve,” the UN chief said.
…preventing violent extremism requires a multi-pronged approach. While military operations are crucial, they are not the entire solution. “Bullets are not the silver bullet,” Mr. Ban said, emphasizing that while missiles may kill terrorists, good governance kills terrorism.
“Human rights, accountable institutions, the equitable delivery of services, and political participation – these are among our most powerful weapons,” the Secretary-General stressed.
Why Isn’t More Done?
If such a consensus exists around the significant role human rights violations play in a variety of negative outcomes (including violent extremism), why don’t policymakers do more to promote human rights? One explanation is that human rights encompass many issues: economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. Furthermore, no consensus exists with regards to the hierarchy of human rights. Fulfilling some human rights obligations are inherently expensive (economic and social rights), while others have more to do with those in power loosening their grip (political, civil, and cultural). In other words, human rights include both positive and negative rights. Which rights should be prioritized in a world of finite resources and political capital?
I am of the camp that believes human rights are inter-dependent; one human right violation enables others, culminating in armed conflict and/or “extreme poverty”. Therefore, there really is no hierarchy. The exception to this rule is the right to life / security; a violation of this right (murder) is permanent and obviously must be upheld before other rights can be considered. This reality is often bastardized to justify restricting rights in the name of security, an issue I will address later in more detail.
Another issue is that the “ends” of promoting some human rights are not immediate, which historically has made verifying progress difficult. To this end, the UN’s Post-2015 Task Force has placed an emphasis on developing indicators for previously non-quantifiable aspects of human rights. These indicators can help verify when progress is being made on longer-term goals, and when ineffective programs need to be adjusted or scrapped.
Promoting and protecting human rights, while admittedly an ambitious goal, gives direction to sustainable development agendas (likes the SDGs / post-2015 development agenda) in both “first world” countries and the world’s least developed countries. Specifically which rights should be prioritized is context sensitive and should be identified through the democratic process.
Problems With Partners
Many of America’s partners, particularly in the Middle-East, are authoritarian regimes which do not share our beliefs in pluralism and human rights. These regimes tend to fight extremism by further restricting peoples rights in the name of security, exacerbating a vicious cycle of violence, under-development / poverty, and human rights abuses. They often characterize any dissenters as “terrorists”, even if their actions are entirely peaceful.
But relying solely on “Western” actors is not financial sustainable or effective, as it fuels the “Western Imperialism” terrorist narrative. Regional partners must play a leading role in combating extremist activities and ideologies. Although imperfect, we must work with these partners as they are, while simultaneously cultivating local support for human rights.
Even our “democratic” allies may find it in their best interest to restrict certain rights. Take Egypt for example, where extremist violence has led to popular support for an unaccountable military regime. One could certainly argue that it is in the Egyptian governments best interest to manage, but not eliminate, violent extremism.
And of course, the American-led coalition has its limits–for example, it refuses to work with the Assad despite the military benefits such a partnership would entail.
The Case for an American National Human Rights Institution:
Human rights accountability outlines the responsibilities of different actors–corporations, the public sector, international development organizations, NGOs, and civil society–in promoting and protecting human rights.
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), which have proliferated over the past two decades, can act as human rights watchdogs. These institutions are most effective when they have a strong mandate, a working relationship with the criminal justice system, and receive their funding independently of federal budgetary decisions.
The unfortunate irony is that in the very places that could benefit the most from effective NHRIs, these conditions are not met. Critics argue NHRIs are ineffective and put in place to create the illusion of promoting and protecting human rights. While this may be true in some cases, it is not in all; ultimately, NHRIs can be as effective or ineffective as their mandates and operating space allow.
The absence of an American NHRI is particularly conspicuous. While America does have strong protections of many rights, it lags in other areas (particularly privacy concerns). A NHRI could provide a forum for people to directly address grievances against the government. Perhaps the whole Snowden debacle could have been averted with a functioning ombudsman system.
An American NHRI could be an political mouthpiece for people, helping to restore faith in the American government (which, sadly, is the lowest amongst the financially insecure–the very people who could benefit from public policy the most). Who knows, an American NHRI institution could play a part in jump-starting stagnant wages and promoting social mobility! While far from a cure-all, an American NHRI could “punch above its weight” in terms of resources required to run it.
Perhaps most importantly, an American NHRI would act as a model for NHRIs in other countries, assisting with financial support, technical knowledge, and capacity building. An American NHRI would unaccountably be a strong voice within the the international coordinating committee (ICC) of NHRIs.
These are hypothetical results, and the presence of effective NHRIs does not mean the realization of human rights would progress in a perfectly linear fashion. The closer people get to acquiring new rights, the harder vested interests dig in against them. This is what is playing out now in the Middle-East and in the Ukrainian Civil War–extremists and authoritarians clinging to the remnants of an old order.
The power of effective democratic governance and a human rights based approach to development is truly awesome. Next time someone asks how America can promote progressive values both at home and abroad, just tell them “it’s human rights, stupid!”
Note: This blog focused exclusively on the relationship between human rights and violent extremism. Click the following links for more information on the linkages between human rights, armed conflict, and economic development (which are themselves related root causes of violent extremism).
In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues promoting human rights is not only a means to an end (“positive peace“, sustainable development, poverty and inequality reduction), but also an important end in itself (empowering people, enabling self-determination)–I fully agree!
Taking a holistic view of the benefits of upholding international human rights norms, an even stronger argument can be made for their promotion and protection.