If It’s Broke, Don’t Make it Worse: A Critique of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism

Naz Modirzadeh
Saturday, January 23, 2016, 7:48 AM

Preventing violent extremism — who could be against that? Especially when it is held up as the antidote to fourteen years of disease purportedly rooted in counterterrorism: war, targeted killing, torture, massive detention, overbroad sanctions, and other security excesses? Where could the fault be in a “practical and comprehensive” policy package that is simultaneously global and local?

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Preventing violent extremism — who could be against that? Especially when it is held up as the antidote to fourteen years of disease purportedly rooted in counterterrorism: war, targeted killing, torture, massive detention, overbroad sanctions, and other security excesses? Where could the fault be in a “practical and comprehensive” policy package that is simultaneously global and local? Over the last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has presented just such a policy package: an ambitious global agenda for getting to the very root of the “scourge of our times.”

The problem with this seemingly unobjectionable effort is that a close reading of the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (the “Plan of Action”) reveals three fatal flaws. First, it does not define “violent extremism.” Second, it fails to present convincing evidence of the causes or “drivers” of “violent extremism” — to be fair, that’s an uphill battle considering the main concept is undefined. And third, despite these threshold failings, the Plan of Action nonetheless prescribes a host of programmatic, political, and institutional actions with significant implications.

As many states and institutions run headlong into countering violent extremism (CVE)* programming, much remains unclear: What is CVE? What isn’t CVE? Is there sufficiently strong evidence upon which to base CVE approaches? What is lost by dedicating resources to CVE, and therefore away from other initiatives?

*The US and other countries use “countering violent extremism” or CVE, while the UN refers to “preventing violent extremism” or PVE. I adopt the more commonly used term CVE here.

The Appeal of CVE

CVE has been on policy agendas for over a decade, but has become the subject of increased multilateral attention in the last few weeks. The Plan of Action is the primary catalyst of this renewed focus. The Plan sets forth a remarkable set of more than 70 recommendations for global, regional, and national efforts to prevent “violent extremism.”

When understood as a dramatic departure from existing counterterrorism methods, CVE has drawn support from certain European liberal democracies as well as from critics of the counterterrorism approaches of current and former U.S. administrations. Last Friday, the Secretary-General noted that “[m]any years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.” Applauding the SG’s recommendations, another commentator noted,

The American approach has been used for nearly the past quarter century in various forms with only limited success, because terror organizations and actions continue to expand widely. The UN approach is much more complex and challenging. It understands why violent extremism has spread so rapidly around the world, and attempts to craft an effective response to it that cuts out its core drivers at the roots, rather than just snipping off the buds that sprout at its extremities — and keep sprouting over and over again if the basic life-giving forces are not removed.

For its part, Human Rights First welcomes the Plan of Action and is urging the U.S. to implement the SG’s recommendations. HRF notes “that a narrow military approach to security concerns has contributed to radicalization and expansion of terrorist violence in several countries during recent years.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the Obama Administration positions itself as a key driver of the global CVE movement. Sarah Sewell, the current Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights—and a central player in the drafting of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps COIN Manual, an approach many have compared to CVE—frames the U.S. and global move to CVE as motivated by “learning” from “more than a decade since the searing experience of 9/11.” Sewell notes that “[o]ver the last two years, the Obama administration has dramatically elevated CVE in the international agenda,” in developing a “preventative, civilian-led framework.” USAID and other government agencies have taken steps to incorporate CVE into their programming.

Seven Concerns

It is not hard to be against “short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights.” But that still leaves the open question of what, exactly, is CVE for?

Thus far, it’s difficult to tell. Reading the Plan of Action, CVE is, at once, non-diagnostic but highly prescriptive; globally oriented but locally focused; skeptical of contemporary counterterrorism measures but supportive of keeping most of them in the arsenal (just in case). There will surely be extensive discussion and debate as states develop national plans of action and as UN bodies and new CVE institutions implement the Plan of Action.

Here, I would like to outline seven initial concerns with CVE as framed in the Plan of Action.

[I should note that I do not address the many significant civil rights and discrimination-based concerns regarding CVE. The US and the UK have faced serious critiques regarding how they have implemented programs like “Strong Cities” and “PREVENT” over the past several years. Here, I focus on the Secretary-General’s approach and the concerns with CVE going global and becoming institutionalized.]

  1. The 70-plus recommendations of the Plan of Action seek to counter an undefined problem.

The Plan claims to pursue “a practical approach to preventing violent extremism, without venturing to address questions of a definition.” But this document nonetheless argues for the world to adopt a new framework and language for thinking about some range of activity that would seem to encompass more than terrorism. In that context, it is alarming that the SG does not venture even a working definition of the problem he deems a “scourge of our times.” Throughout the Plan of Action, the SG moves — as he did at a January 15th General Assembly speech — between the terms “violent extremism,” “terrorism,” and “extremism” as though they are synonymous. Yet, the Plan states

with the emergence of a new generation of groups, there is a growing international consensus that [such] counterterrorism measures have not been sufficient to prevent the spread of violent extremism. Violent extremism encompasses a wider category of manifestations and there is a risk that a conflation of the two terms may lead to the justification of an overly broad application of counter-terrorism measures, including against forms of conduct that should not qualify as terrorist acts.

Which manifestations qualify? What kind of conduct is being addressed? The Plan of Action fails to tell us.

  1. There is little to no evidence to support the causal claims in the Plan of Action.

The Plan makes it clear that there is no scholarly consensus on what causes “violent extremism” and no quantitative or dispositive evidence on what causes individuals to turn to “violent extremism” or become “radicalized.” To be fair, it would certainly be difficult to locate such a consensus without a definition of the problem itself. However, the “push” and “pull” factors articulated in the document are so broad they are impossible to disprove. A few gems:

  • “[C]ountries that fail to generate high and sustainable levels of growth, to create decent jobs for their youth, to reduce poverty and unemployment, to improve equality, to control corruption and to manage relationships among different communities in line with their human rights obligations, are more prone to violent extremism and tend to witness a greater number of incidents linked to violent extremism.”
  • “Violations of international human rights law committed in the name of state security can facilitate violent extremism by marginalizing individuals and alienating key constituencies, thus generating community support and sympathy for and complicity in the actions of violent extremists.”

Surely all these things could contribute to violence, dissatisfied populations, and acts against the state. And certainly, prolonged conflicts lead to authority vacuums and, thus, environments that armed groups could exploit. But how this relates to the innovative concept of “violent extremism” is less clear. Furthermore, this section fails to set forth any actual causal links between bad state acts, poor living conditions, and “violent extremism.” So how to explain why entire societies living under the conditions described do not become violent? The section on the “process of radicalization” lays out the “pull factors” that may cause individuals to become “violent extremists.” A few examples:

  • “A negative personal experience which resonates with the narrative of violent extremist ideologies can heighten the chances that an individual will embrace violent extremism. Individual motivations vary from the serious to the routine: researchers have reported precipitating events as diverse as experiencing or witnessing torture, the death of a relative or friends at the hands of the security forces or a foreign power, unfair trials, the loss of property and the humiliation of a parent — and even the refusal of a personal loan.”
  • “While some highly educated individuals have played consequential roles in violent extremist organizations, many members are poorly educated…It is quite likely that they may have been engaged in petty crimes and illicit activities prior to their involvement with violent extremist groups.”
  • “Historical legacies of, or collective grievances stemming from, domination, oppression, subjugation or foreign intervention can enable narratives of victimization to take hold. These narratives can provoke simple and powerful emotional reactions…”

Presumably intended to provide the analytical support for the prescriptions that follow, these factors are so broad as to cover nearly every single person who has ever taken up arms against the state. Indeed, many who resort to violence will have experienced feelings of victimization, denial of a loan, massive human rights violations, domination of one’s country by a foreign power, torture, falling under the spell of a charismatic leader, being exceptionally well-educated, being woefully undereducated, being a petty criminal or, perhaps, being an upstanding citizen who one day simply “breaks.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with making clear that a hypothesis requires more research and evidence before conclusions are drawn. It is laudable when public officials recognize the need for research and evidence-based policies. However, where the evidence is as thin as the Plan of Action suggests, the prescriptions should be accordingly limited as well.

  1. Despite failing to diagnose the underlying problem, the Plan of Action nonetheless prescribes a host of programmatic, political, legal, and institutional actions for the multilateral system, all U.N. member states, and security and humanitarian actors.

As reiterated in the SG’s January 15th speech, the Plan calls for an “all-out approach.” It calls for each member state to “adopt a National Plan of Action that sets priorities, such as access to justice, strengthening institutions, and investing in education programmes that foster pluralism.” Member states are directed to consider a stunningly broad array of elements, ranging from fostering dialogue, to better service delivery, accountability for gross violations, enhancing community policing, empowering youth, addressing existing human rights violations, fostering intergenerational dialogue, protecting and empowering women, mainstreaming gender perspectives, fostering an entrepreneurial culture amongst youth, and much more.

The list includes many wonderful things, some of which are already legal obligations of states. But while these are nice ideas, many have not been demonstrated to reduce violence and are not necessarily the appropriate domain of the state. Furthermore, it is difficult to conceive of what kind of document would capture all of these aspects of governance. It is also difficult to see how this fits within the claim that CVE is “civilian-led.”

Ultimately, this Plan of Action seeks to move institutions, resources, norms, and policies on the basis of a weak analytical foundation.

  1. Implementing the Plan of Action requires drawing vital resources away from existing security, multilateral, and humanitarian efforts.

The Plan of Action is not simply a multi-agency negotiated political document full of U.N. jargon — though it is that too. It calls for the mobilization and dedication of significant resources in support of its recommendations based on claims about politics and violence. If this simply meant additional resources would now be dedicated to promoting human rights, accountability, democratic participation, and equality before the law, then that might be cause for celebration.

But two observations may merit pausing the festivities. First, recall that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are major financial supporters of CVE. Neither nation has the reputation as a bastion of participatory democracy or government accountability. And second, resources in this realm are finite, so anything invested in CVE is not available for some other effort. Creating new institutions is expensive; staffing new positions across the world costs money. Investing in “gender-sensitive research and data collection on women’s roles in violent extremism” or launching a “global communications strategy” is likewise not free. Indeed, “adjusting the focus of existing funds dedicated to countering terrorism and violent extremism to enable them to also address the drivers of violent extremism” means moving funds away from something else.

Those evaluating the Plan of Action in light of the contemporary global security and humanitarian crises will need to determine whether to draw from other areas in order to invest in CVE. To the extent that the document calls for the creation of a new “field” that is different from counter-terrorism and human rights (though in unknown ways), it is important to recognize how this new field might marshal and demand resources. What should be cut to fund it? Or where should new funds be found?

  1. CVE may have a totalizing effect whereby it subsumes other legitimate interests under the banner of suppressing “violent extremism.”

The Plan of Action seeks to be, simultaneously, both not at all and entirely about international law. The document does not ground the concept of “violent extremism” in international law. In fact, it’s not clear whether all acts of “violent extremism” are even necessarily unlawful, particularly those conducted during an armed conflict. But at the same time, the Plan of Action appears to regard compliance with international law as the main pathway to stopping the scourge and curtailing its appeal.

The Plan of Action does not emphasize that states are already bound to comply with applicable international law nor that ending impunity for international law violations ought to be a goal in and of itself. Instead, the Plan of Action frames violations of international law — or lack of the rule of law — as possible causes of “violent extremism.” As the document states, “violations of international human rights law committed in the name of state security can facilitate violent extremism by marginalizing individuals and alienating key constituencies, thus generating community support and sympathy for and complicity in the actions of violent extremists.”

This kind of consequentialist framing presents either an opportunity or a danger depending on one’s perspective. True, the Plan could benefit civil society organizations working to draw attention to human rights abuses, impunity for war crimes, or suppression of dissent (“Stop torturing prisoners, or they might become violent extremists."). Or it might provide new grounds to urge governments to facilitate humanitarian access (“Provide access or violent extremists will take advantage of the lack of supplies to recruit people who are discontented and suffering."). But it is also possible that such a narrowly consequentialist approach to international law, humanity, and accountability poses a risk to the normative commitments underlying the rules regulating state conduct. Further, it introduces the possibility that law violating acts could be justified on the basis of CVE: what if suppressing speech and access to technology actually diminishes the recruitment reach of ISIS?

  1. The Plan of Action calls for blurring the lines between purposefully distinct activities.

In his January 15th speech, the Secretary General noted, “We must break down the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at the national, regional and global levels – including at the United Nations.” This underscores the Plan of Action’s “all-of-UN” recommendations and its call for CVE coordination across all UN actors. Further, the SG specifically instructs all UN bodies to dedicate efforts to addressing the “drivers of violent extremism,” including integrating “preventing violent extremism into relevant activities of the United Nations…as well as into relevant activities of the United Nations country teams in order to build the capacity of Member States.” The Plan of Action suggests that this coordination will be in the hands of the Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force — interestingly, in the US, some have argued that CVE is de facto led by DHS.

But humanitarian efforts – at least in situations of armed conflict – are purposely distinct from security and development efforts. There are UN actors and INGO and NGO implementing partners whose missions — and staffs — could be put at tremendous risk if they are required to “mainstream” CVE, whatever that might mean, and integrate with security efforts.

It is often useful to break down silos, especially useless ones. Sometimes, though, silos are necessary to keep the the grain dry.

  1. If CVE fails, the political and security costs are not zero.

It’s tempting to view CVE as merely telling states to implement and enforce international laws to which they have already agreed. If so, what is the big deal? By this logic, if CVE fails—as certain other global initiatives have failed—then we will return to the status quo ante. But this outcome is far from certain.

If the Plan is implemented as the SG hopes, then every state in the world will have a national plan of action on CVE. States will dedicate resources and energy towards this effort. They will draft new laws. They will change where development and aid money is invested. Their officials will refer to communities that are “vulnerable” to terrorism, or ethnic or religious groups that must be “protected” from their own tendency to be drawn to “violent extremism.” These communities will be scrutinized and surveilled under the banner of CVE; states will engage in efforts to make religious people more “moderate,” or to teach them that their religious texts say something other than what they believe.

Depending on how judiciously, wisely, and fairly CVE is deployed, by CVE’s own internal logic it might produce as many “violent extremists” as it prevents. There is a real potential for backlash here, and it should be taken seriously in the contemporary geopolitical environment.


At the height of global security concerns regarding ISIS and armed actors, it is appealing to believe the international community is taking a more sober and sophisticated approach; that we are turning the page on kinetic military operations and overbroad criminal law enforcement. And it is even more tempting to believe this will happen by putting human rights, IHL, and social services at the center of global, regional, and national governance. If the counterterrorism system is broken, the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism just does not present a convincing fix.

Naz K. Modirzadeh is a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School and the founding Director of the HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. She writes and teaches primarily in the field of public international law, with a focus on non-use of force, armed conflict, the U.N. Security Council, and counterterrorism issues. Modirzadeh is on the Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Lieber Institute for Law and Warfare at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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