UNHRC: Resolution on “violent extremism” undermines clarity

UNHRC: Resolution on “violent extremism” undermines clarity - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 expresses strong reservations regarding a UN Human Rights Council resolution on “human rights and preventing and countering violent extremism”, adopted at its 30th Session on 2nd October 2015.[1] The resolution, which was voted following last-minute oral revisions, introduces ambiguous language on “violent extremism” without sufficient safeguards for fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, and undermines existing standards in this area.

The resolution comes in the wake of numerous incidents in which we see governments in all parts of the world restricting civic space and targeting legitimate dissent in the name of combating “extremism” or “violent extremism”. ARTICLE 19 acknowledges that there are serious and legitimate threats to national security in the world, but this is a missed opportunity for the Human Rights Council to consolidate agreement on the key principles that must underpin these debates, in particular to ensure that any efforts to safeguard security do not come at the expense of the protection of all human rights.

A large cross-regional core group tabled the resolution comprised of Albania, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, France, Iraq, Mali, Morocco, Peru, Turkey, Tunisia, and the United States of America. It is the first resolution on “human rights and preventing and countering violent extremism” the Human Rights Council has considered; its adoption calls for a panel discussion at the 31st Session in March 2016, and an OHCHR compilation of “best practices” which will be presented next September. The resolution follows a UN General Assembly high-event on this issue, as well as various intergovernmental initiatives on the same theme, and precedes a UN “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism”, which is expected soon.

The resolution was voted following extensive debate, with the core sponsors failing to secure consensus, exposing significant divisions among States’ understandings of and approaches to preventing and countering “violent extremism”. Of the 47 Human Rights Council member states, 37 voted in favour of the resolution, including Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia,[2] 3 voted against,[3] and 7 abstained.

Hostile amendments proposed by Russia were rejected by vote though partially accommodated through oral revisions to the resolution, and further hostile amendments proposed by China were withdrawn, though only after the core group largely accommodated the Chinese government’s concerns through additional oral revisions. Egypt, a Human Rights Council observer State, joined the resolution as a co-sponsor and in its closing remarks at the Session welcomed the efforts of the core group to accommodate its various concerns. Following adoption, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Norway and the Netherlands withdrew their co-sponsorship of the resolution.

What is “violent extremism”?

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the meaning of “violent extremism” in the resolution, as well as in broader discussions outside of the Human Rights Council, is not clear, creating significant ambiguity around which actions to “counter” or “prevent” this phenomenon are compatible with international human rights law, in particular the right to freedom of expression.

The core group behind the resolution failed to distinguish “violent extremism” from “terrorism”, other than to imply the former is a broader concept; making the rationale for this new Human Rights Council initiative in an already crowded agenda unclear. By taking an issue as sensitive as human rights in the context of national security to a vote, the resolution not only duplicates but potentially undermines parallel consensus-based resolutions on the “protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism”.

This lack of clarity in the resolution is compounded by the sporadic use of additional ambiguous phrases, such as “extremist ideologies or intolerance” (without mentioning ‘violence’), “violent extremists and their supporters”, “radicalization”, and “narratives that incite violent extremism”. States’ interventions in the debate revealed a lack of common agreement on whether the resolution should address ideology or action, or both, and how either would be defined, and whether “violence” was even a necessary element. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the introduction of the new terminology of “violent extremism” is unnecessary given the on-going work to define “terrorism” in a human rights context, and that the resolution disregards the concerns and guidance of relevant Human Rights Council special procedures in this regard.

In its first operational paragraph, the resolution describes “acts, methods and practices of violent extremism” as “activities that aim to threaten the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and democracy, and threaten territorial integrity and the security of States, and destabilize legitimately constituted Governments”. This description is excessively broad, and could potentially capture non-violent actions that challenge governments during or between elections through critical commentary, investigative journalism, or protest. Such legitimate expression is often framed by repressive governments as ‘extremist’ simply because it questions and thereby ‘destabilizes’ the status quo.

The debate on the resolution also revealed significant divisions in States’ views on the causes of “violent extremism”. Several delegations expressed disappointment that insufficient focus was given to racism and religious intolerance as causative factors, notwithstanding the introduction of a paragraph addressing this in preambular paragraph 21. This threatens to upset what is already a very fragile consensus on Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 “on combatting religious intolerance”, which is referenced in the resolution alongside the Rabat Plan of Action. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that HRC initiatives primarily intended to address discrimination are now being situated within a ‘national security’ framework, in particular where security measures are often discriminatory and a source of stigmatisation. Other interventions in the debate sought to ensure non-interference in States’ internal affairs – the usual trump-card for evading criticism of domestic human rights records while categorizing all real and imagined “threats to national security” as attributable to “foreign” elements. This is an argument often employed by governments seeking to justify increasing restrictions on civil society space.

Creating and maintaining civil society space

ARTICLE 19 shares concerns expressed by Ireland on behalf of a group of States that the resolution undermines existing standards on creating and maintaining a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

Operational paragraph 9 of the resolution, while recognizing the important role of civil society in countering “violent extremism”, qualifies this freedom by referencing that civil society should act “in accordance with national strategies”. Last-minute revisions to operational paragraph 2 deleted specific reference to ensuring that counter-terrorism laws comply with international human rights law, leaving this paragraph more ambiguous and further weakening the resolution.

In HRC resolution 27/31 “on civil society space”, adopted by consensus in September 2014, the Human Rights Council recognised the importance of an “independent, diverse and pluralistic civil society”. At the same time, it expresses deep concerns at the abuse of national security legislation to restrict civil society’s access to resources, and to hinder their work and endanger their safety. It calls on all States to create, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment for civil society, and calls for specific action to ensure the compatibility of legal frameworks with international human rights law. Similar calls are made on States in Human Rights Council resolutions “on human rights defenders” res 22/6 (2013), and resolutions “on the right to freedom of opinion and expression” HRC res 12/16 (2009).

The resolution on “violent extremism” fails to specifically pinpoint the reality of the shrinking space for civil society, and how legal frameworks are often abused to silence minority and dissenting voices, including in the name of “national security” and increasingly in the name of combatting “extremism”. It fails to recognize the right of all people, in particular civil society actors, to publicly speak out against and disagree with government policies and actions in all fields, and the constructive role and right of civil society to participate in public decision-making and take positions adverse to governments in those processes. The resolution seemingly endorses, contrary to agreed Human Rights Council language, that civil society should be subordinate to the agendas of governments – which is a significant and concerning retreat.

The importance of human rights online

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the resolution on “violent extremism” fails to defend a core principle long recognized by the Human Rights Council that human rights that apply offline, also apply online (see, for example, A/HRC/20/8 on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, and A/HRC/28/16 on “the right to privacy in the digital age”).

There is no sufficiently strong and positive reference in the resolution to the essential role of the Internet in the promotion and protection of human rights, or to transparency and good governance, including in the context of addressing genuine national security concerns. This failure overlooks the various governmental efforts around the world to limit the enjoyment of human rights online by increasing controls over the Internet in the name of ‘national security’, in particular through greater surveillance and censorship powers and seeking the ‘cooperation’ of internet intermediaries in this regard. These measures disproportionately target and further marginalize minority and vulnerable groups.

A last-minute amendment to the resolution to add a new additional paragraph was particularly concerning, accommodating almost in full a proposed hostile amendment by China (A/HRC/30/L.41), based in part on agreed Security Council language concerning countering terrorism, on the negative role of the Internet in relation to countering “violent extremism”.  The new paragraph reads, in full:

OP7bis. Expresses concern over the increased use by terrorists and violent extremists and their supporters of communications technology for the purpose of radicalizing to terrorism or violent extremism, recruiting and inciting others to commit acts of terrorism or violent extremism, including through the Internet.”

As the Irish-led joint statement following the adoption of the resolution also highlights, the added paragraph not only introduces dangerously ambiguous language, it also departs from the focus of the Human Rights Council’s mandate to protect and promote human rights. The resolution’s primary focus in relation to the Internet is therefore one framed in a wholly negative manner, doing much to undo hard-won albeit slow progress at the Human Rights Council on the protection of human rights online.

The core group’s concession to China and others in making this addition, while still failing to get consensus support for the resolution, threatens to significantly undermine Human Rights Council standards on the right to freedom of expression online and the protection of civil society space.

What next?

ARTICLE 19 recommends that at the panel discussion to take place at the Human Rights Council at its 31st Session in March 2016, States must:

  • Make strong statements in favour of maintaining a safe and enabling environment for civil society and in defence of promoting and protecting human rights online as well as offline;
  • Robustly condemn those that abuse national security frameworks to close civil society space, including through laws and practices that enable surveillance and silence critical voices online as well as offline;
  • Ensure the full and effective participation of civil society voices in the panel discussion.

In formulating its compilation report on “best practices and lessons learned on how protecting and promoting human rights contribute to preventing and countering violent extremism”, ARTICLE 19 encourages the OHCHR to:

  • Proactively seek the input of civil society to the report as a primary stakeholder;
  • Explore the various meanings given to “violent extremism” and related concepts, and the potential impact of ambiguity in this area on the promotion and protection of human rights, drawing upon lessons learned through parallel Human Rights Council initiatives on promoting and protecting human rights while countering terrorism.

[1] The reference to the draft resolution is: A/HRC/30/L.25/Rev.1 (Oral Revision 02/10).

[2] Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Maldives, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Nigeria, Paraguay, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom of Greater Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, and Vietnam.

[3] South Africa, the Russi