UNHRC 31: “Preventing violent extremism” poses dangers to free expression

ARTICLE 19, joined by a group of civil society organisations, has raised serious concerns on the potentially negative impact of initiatives to prevent violent extremism (PVE) on the enjoyment of human rights, during a panel discussion at the 31st Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

The joint oral statement highlighted that “violent extremism” lacks an agreed definition, that there is no shared understanding of its causes, and that this opens the door to human rights violations.

It highlighted that in many States, while violence targets independent voices, the actions of governments in the name of “PVE” also target protected dissent. Online freedoms are also increasingly at risk, through censorship and surveillance, and the targeting of encryption and anonymity. Even well intentioned PVE initiatives can be counter-productive, discriminating against and alienating the communities they supposedly seek to help.

The oral statement focuses concerns that ARTICLE 19 has also raised directly with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, ahead of today’s panel discussion. 58 organisations supported a letter, which the High Commissioner responded to, highlighting the several recent public statements in which he has addressed this issue.

The UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights has also recently addressed the issue of “preventing violent extremism” in a comprehensive report that highlights the abuses taking place within this framework, including violations of the right to freedom of expression.

The panel discussion at the HRC, and the report of the Special Rapporteur, follow closely on the UN Secretary General’s recently launched “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism”, which has been criticised in some quarters and welcomed in others.

As States and intergovernmental bodies mobilise around PVE as a concept, as well as a policy and legal framework, it is crucial that States engage in a frank assessment of the dangers this is already posing and can pose to the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.