Written By: Karen Jayes and Anna Sekular

A report into global countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives by the UN Human Rights Council, underlines much of what CAGE has been saying in its opposition to PREVENT and Channel – but it stops short of challenging the aggressive foreign policy of powerful nations, and the global CVE industry itself, where much of our problems lie.

Nonetheless, the report, authored by the Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, Ben Emmerson, makes some landmark criticisms of domestic and global counter-terrorism policy that must be lauded. Emmerson rightly decries the lack of empirical research and clarity on the definition of extremism, and the problematic term “radicalisation”. The report states strongly that educators “should not be compelled to act as watchdogs or intelligence officers” and report on children. It also commendably highlights the need to protect freedom of expression even when that expression is deemed to be “extreme” as long as it is not linked to a violent act.

The report was published in the wake of the release of the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism in January. In February, a joint letter from 58 NGOs called attention to the harmful impact of counter-extremism initiatives on human rights. The letter, convened by Article 19, also noted how counter-extremism initiatives “overwhelming target Muslims”.

While the work of the report and its timeous release are commendable, it comes at a time when we are witnessing the burgeoning of the counter-terrorism industry, and the blurring of the lines between counter-terrorism and security. This month, London plays host to the dubiously titled Security and Counter-Terror Expo. The Expo is supported by the Home Office, aligned with CHANNEL, and it also showcases the latest in drone technology. The number of organisations and NGOs capitalising on the fear in the counter-terrorism space is growing, despite the fact that the vast majority (as much as 80 percent) of ‘theories’ underpinning counter-terrorism have little empirical basis.

Broad terminology creates a dangerous catch-all


Emmerson himself acknowledges that the knowledge underpinning theories of extremism is dubious: “Many programmes directed at radicalisation are based on a simplistic understanding of the process as a fixed trajectory to violent extremism with identifiable markers along the way,” he notes. “States have tended to focus on those that are most appealing to them, shying away from the more complex issues, including political issues such as foreign policy and transnational conflicts.”

“The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about the term ‘extremism’, which has been used by several States … as an offense in itself. In that context, it has attracted a well-founded concern that the vagueness of the concept could lead to its use against members of religious minorities, civil society, human rights defenders, peaceful separatist and indigenous groups and members of political opposition parties.”

Such statements could be well applied to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who in December last year, branded leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn a “terrorist sympathiser” for opposing air strikes on Syria. It is within this context too, that current counter-terrorism legislation in the UK and globally, in its lack of differentiation between “violent” and “non-violent extremism”, seems to be aimed clearly at silencing and criminalising politically active and vocal Muslim organisations and individuals.

These broad definitions of extremism and applications in Britain and beyond, also feed into justice systems that for the most part address the pre-criminal space and in their use of secret evidence, do not uphold the rule of law. This, despite Emmerson’s insistence that “all Member States efforts to address violent extremism must be firmly grounded in the rule of law and international human rights law”. The Terrorism Act in the UK, for example, has been ruled as being incompatible with the principles of the European Court of Human Rights.

The report acknowledges programmes like PREVENT, and highlights a primary concern around “how individuals are identified [as being ‘at risk’ of violent extremism], what indicators are taken into consideration, and who is qualified to refer”. Emmerson also deplores the “lack of transparency in their implementation”, something that CAGE has sought to address by publishing leaks revealing the simplistic and stereotypical nature of PREVENT training manuals, used to train over 360 000 public sector workers in identifying ‘extremists’. Over 4000 people have been referred through the flawed PREVENT programme last year alone, many of them women and children, adding to a climate of fear.


Related: What you should know about the terror arrests stats


While the report calls for clearer definitions where ‘extremism’ is concerned, it fails to make a key differentiation between a ‘foreign fighter’ and a ‘terrorist’. As Jeremy Shapiro at The Brookings Institution told Al Jazeera: “A lot of the UN resolutions [on ‘terrorism’] have qualities to them where basically any uprising against a government can involve this entire body of law. We see this everywhere.” Such differentiations are key to securing the support of communities. From the perspective of international law, such definitions run contrary to both Additional Protocol I and II of the Geneva Conventions, where language was specifically introduced in order recognise the legitimacy of movements for national liberation and self-determination outside of the polemics of terrorism.

There is also an unwillingness on the part of governments to address the connection between aggressive domestic and foreign policy, with political violence – particularly important in light of the recent attacks in Nigeria, Turkey and Belgium. “The Secretary-General notes the role that human rights violations might play in leading to violent extremism,” Emmerson hints. And yet, unfortunately, the report stops short of pointing out that the foreign and domestic policies of powerful nations and their compliant majority world governments, which infringe upon the rights of Muslims in particular, must be properly addressed.

Freedom of expression must be protected, as should freedom of movement


“Peacefully expressing views deemed to be extreme under any definition, should never be criminalised,” Emmerson states. The report, commendably, links this essential tenet of civil society with the right to peacefully pursue other “agendas” that are “different from the agendas of government”. “Government should counter ideas they disagree with, but should not seek to prevent non-violent ideas and opinions from being discussed,” the report concludes.

The British government has defined extremism in its failing PREVENT strategy as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy…” Such generalisations centring on a vague notion of British values, stand in danger of criminalising free thought, expression and political dissent, and also run counter to the UN position.

Following on from this, the Special Rapporteur also underlines the need for States to respect the privacy of individuals and groups: “Individuals have the right to share information and ideas with one another without interference by the State, secure in the knowledge that their communication will reach and be read by the recipients alone. Measures that interfere with this right must be authorised by domestic law that is accessible and precise, must pursue a legitimate aim and meet the tests of necessity and proportionality.”


Read More: As a Doctor, I refuse to spy on my patients


And in a move that calls into question both past and present British government policy in terms of control orders and TPIMs, the UN states that measures to modify legislation in order to limit the movement of individuals deemed to be “extremists”, “are particularly problematic where the proscribed conduct is broadly defined, where the involvement of the judiciary is limited [relevant in light of the parallel legal system that has been established in Britain for citizenship cases], or where the burden of proof is very low”.

Emmerson also recalls that “international human rights law forbids statelessness, and includes the right to nationality”, particularly noteworthy given cases of citizenship deprivation and passport removal by the UK, such as in the case of Mahdi Hashi, and in the current case of Sam Mansour, the first Danish citizen to be stripped of his citizenship due to a terrorism conviction , who says he will face execution if returned to Morocco.

Children must be protected from securitisation and surveillance


Perhaps the report’s strongest statement comes in support of the need for young people to be free from being viewed through a securitised lens – and the absolute imperative to keep schools and universities as open spaces of free flowing thought and debate, in direct opposition to recent libellous pronouncements by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan that CAGE talks at universities are “incitement to hatred”.

The report further berates the current approach adopted by PREVENT regarding schools and universities. “Educators should not be required to act as watchdogs or intelligence officers, nor should they be obliged to act in ways that might impinge the right to education, academic freedom or freedom of expression, thought, religion or belief,” the report states. “Such measures may lead pupils and students to self-censor to avoid being branded ’extremist’, cause teachers and other staff to view pupils and students as potential threats, or avoid discussing certain issues or inviting guest speakers whose views may be controversial”.

This statement has been echoed by Britain’s National Union of Teachers who have called for the withdrawal of PREVENT.


Read More: Consent Denied: How PREVENT questions children without parental involvement


CAGE has consistently opposed PREVENT, especially in light of its effect on free speech, debate and political dissent. We spearheaded a letter published in the Independent signed by over 300 academics highlighting the dangers of the PREVENT policy in Britain. We have also consistently spoken out at universities against PREVENT and have been at the core of the Students Not Suspects movement against PREVENT. Our opposition and that of our allies has been so successful that we have earned the ire of the right-wing media establishment who consistently attempt to malign our views.

Despite UN recommendations to the contrary, the UK seems to be exporting its failing PREVENT programme to the United States. US Congressional staff were left ‘impressed’ by the PREVENT strategy in a recent visit to the UK, and the policy seems to be being adopted in schools in the US – much to the alarm of community organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), who have identified – as has the Special Rapporteur – how counter-terrorism programmes are eroding human freedoms for all.

Blurring the lines between counter-terrorism and security


At the core of the issue is the way in which counter-terrorism initiatives and the countering violent extremism (CVE) industry has antagonised and continues to antagonise Muslims. Without saying so much, Emmerson acknowledges that there is “a perception among communities that counter-extremism initiatives are simply another vehicle for the State to implement the security aspects of its counter-terrorism strategy”. What he calls for is a clearer distinction between measures to counter violent extremism and the security aspect of countering terrorism – but he stops short of probing the growing CVE industry itself.

The report has been published at a time when Muslim communities are being viewed increasingly through a securitised lens, and there is a web of state and non-state organisations that seek to uphold this way of seeing. Besides the plethora of neo-conservative think-tanks and NGOs that fan fear and advocate securitisation and war, these organisations include more subtle global networks like the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), which lists a number of PREVENT initiatives in its best practices and shares them at EU level, and even shares its staff members, the Strong Cities Network, essentially a global policing network that is McCarthyist in its sweeping statements, and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF), linked to over 30 countries including Saudi Arabia, and Hedaya, linked to the UAE  – countries known for their repressive counter-terrorism legislation and acts.

How can politically motivated violence be addressed, if the very nations at the helm of global counter-terrorism initiatives, are considered repressive and antagonistic, and are in fact the greatest pundits of the securitized response? How can we find common ground given this state of play?

These are core questions that the UN report unfortunately does not answer.


Also at issue is whether this report, despite the gravitas of the organisation behind it, will ultimately make much difference given the selective hearing of the UK and US governments when it comes to human rights and civil liberty issues.

Whilst the report is welcome, the issues it has brought up are by no means new.  Rather than trying to ‘rephrase’ CVE – as this report calls for – what we really should be asking is this: why is the UN shying away from stating the obvious – that the CVE industry is in itself an assault on human rights and civil liberties, and needs to be addressed within the realms of a return to the rule of law?


The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism was submitted on 22 February and is available online.

(CC image courtesy of sanjitbakshi on flickr)

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)