Effective prevention of violent extremism

POINT OF VIEW - Gustavo Gonzalez - The Philippine Star

On Feb. 12, we observed International Day for the Prevention of Violent Extremism as and when Conducive to Terrorism. The declaration of this day stems from a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, and it aims to raise awareness of the threats linked to violent extremism and to enhance international cooperation to address this complex and multidimensional issue.

Violent extremism is neither new nor exclusive to any region, nationality or system of belief. No country or region is immune from its impacts. In 2019 alone, violence and conflict inflicted an estimated $14.4-trillion blow to the global economy – equivalent to 10.5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) or $1,895 per person.

Threats or risks of terrorism deter investments – a 5 percent fall in net Foreign Direct Investment position of the country, say experts, diverting resources from economic and social programs to the security sector.

While there is consensus that violent extremism and terrorism negatively impact development, not all of us have the same understanding of strategies, approaches or instruments to combatting them. Governments have the primary responsibility of ensuring security, respecting human rights, upholding the rule of law and countering discrimination, exclusion and marginalization. Civil society organizations are often well-placed, knowledgeable and experienced in identifying and addressing the grievances that make individuals more vulnerable to radicalization and violent extremism, leveraging their expertise and community connections. Experience also shows that private sector actors also have unique capacities – and resources – that can make them strategic partners for governments.

A frequent term used by policymakers to describe the collective investment needed to fight violent extremism is the “whole of society approach.” However, this convenient shortcut risks oversimplifying the complexities of social dynamics, internal division of labor, roles, responsibilities, power imbalances and exclusions. Governments and civil society organizations must overcome stereotypes from each other and collaborate professionally, with clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Governments are expected to provide civil society and private sector stakeholders with the legal and political space they need to engage with those vulnerable to violent extremism. Civil society is expected to give critical feedback to government actors, including when officials overstep or fail to fulfill their duties. Police and other security forces are expected to avoid instrumentalizing civil society organizations to gather criminal intelligence and detect threats within communities. Antagonistic approaches – and I can refer to my own professional experience – do not bring the desired results; on the contrary, they exacerbate existing divisions, limit information flows which would allow governments to address grievance through peaceful means and weaken much needed social trust.

As we are learning, violent extremism is not only to be combated, but it also can be prevented. And this is the most interesting and complex part of the “whole of society approach.” Radicalization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not a spontaneous phenomenon of history that can easily discharge us from any responsibility. The alienation of a high number of youths who join terrorist organizations doesn’t happen overnight. And the causes cannot just be reduced to a lack of income or employment for youths, as we sometimes oversimplify in our forums. Understanding and addressing the root causes of violent extremism and terrorism requires, in many cases, a critical historic analysis in addition to genuine discussions with youth and others at risk of radicalization.

So far, we know that the inability of a society to engage youths in meaningful ways and to provide opportunities for individual fulfillment of political, social, economic, cultural, religious aspirations risks exacerbating preexisting gaps and frustrations that can be easily exploited by violent-ideology organizations.

Preventing violent extremism requires a comprehensive, long-term investment encompassing education, institutional behavioral changes and prioritization of early warnings and anticipatory actions. National budgets are good indicators to assess if prevention is a political priority for a given administration. We have to also admit that prevention, as a long-term project, does not always attract the interest of political short-termism.

We are also learning that terrorism is becoming a fluid and amorphous phenomenon that combines military non-State armed groups, organized crime networks, engaged in a wide range of illicit trafficking from small arms and light weapons to the latest security and communication technology. In addition, not all terrorist-induced violence is linked to armed conflict. We experience the emergence of powerful software tools that can spread and distort content instantly and massively heralds a qualitatively different, new reality. Violent extremism and terrorism have also an evident gender dimension. Women and girls are continuously and often disproportionately affected by acts of violent extremism. It’s not a surprise that gender inequality and misogyny are central to the propagation of violent extremism.

The adoption in 2016 of the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism provided a comprehensive approach to addressing the underlying conditions behind violent extremism conducive to terrorism. ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, were among the first in the world to adopt their own regional Plan of Action in 2018.

Cooperation between the government of the Philippines and the United Nations in preventing violent extremism and terrorism has significantly increased in recent years. The United Nations Office of Counterterrorism, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Development Program have been leading technical assistance in such sector, assisted by many other UN entities to ensure holistic and integrated support to the country. I am glad to confirm that our new 2024-2028 UN Development Cooperation Framework, signed with the government on Oct. 24 last year, will enhance such partnership with a strong prevention and resilience building approach.

Prevention and sustainable development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. In this context, full achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals remains critical, both in their own right and because sustainable development is ultimately the only way to comprehensively address the interlinked, multidimensional drivers of violence and insecurity.

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Gustavo Gonzalez is the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines.

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