The White House summit on countering violent extremism kicked off in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Consider the three-day conference a global pep talk before a long game: A U.S.-led effort to address the underlying causes of violent extremism, including the economic, social and political circumstances that make youth vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups around the world.
“Eliminating the terrorists who confront us today actually only solves part of the problem,” Secretary of State John Kerry said last month at the World Economic Forum, explaining the summit’s goal. “We have to transform the very environment from which these movements emerge.”
Kerry was referring to armed groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. But as with the so-called U.S. war on terrorism, Washington’s latest effort to counter violent extremism could provide abusive governments with a pretext for cracking down on dissent and punishing human rights activists.
Many U.S. allies already have anti-terrorism laws that intimidate critics and repress peaceful dissent. For example, in Saudi Arabia, prominent attorney and human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years on charges of “harming public order” and “inflaming public opinion.” One of his former clients and prominent blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “or insulting Islam.”
Yet last month, Kerry credited Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah for pointing “the way” in a global “battle of ideas” against violent extremism. In the same breath, Kerry thanked the United Arab Emirates for building the International Center for Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism, the first of its kind, in Abu Dhabi.
Never mind the UAE’s ugly crackdown on pro-democracy reformists, which includes publicly smearing advocates of government accountability as “Islamists” and jailing more than 100 peaceful activists on sweeping national-security-related and cybercrime charges.
The U.S. needs to condemn these practices and call them out as antithetical to its long-term strategy for countering violent extremism, which includes reducing global youth unemployment and encouraging police and judicial systems that respect human rights.
Still, there’s more at stake here than unseemly associations with abusive counterterrorism partners. Last fall the U.S. successfully pushed through a United Nations Security Council resolution on the subject and is now urging member states to make concrete progress on implementation. Moreover, as the leading player in global efforts to counter extremism, the U.S. sets an example for other countries.
At a time of renewed alarm and fear, the White House’s ambivalence on human rights could signal that it will support and aid foreign governments engaged in crackdowns on dissent and other rights abuses, as long as their ostensible aim is to help stem the recruitment and flow of fighters to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
The summit is a pivotal moment to clearly articulate Washington’s position. President Barack Obama’s ambivalence will speak volumes to European governments, global philanthropists and tech companies gathered at the White House and State Department to consider carrying out or funding programs aimed at countering violent extremism.
Unless Obama emphasizes the need for caution, due diligence and human rights safeguards, private companies and philanthropists could rush into funding abusive governments or NGOs that appear legitimate but enable the abuses of foreign governments.
The U.S. government has provided no real guarantees that countering violent extremism will not provide a backdoor to funding and assistance to foreign governments — circumventing the U.S. law and congressional oversight that apply to foreign aid disbursements. Abusive regimes could use U.S. assistance in surveillance and intelligence-sharing operations to gather information on dissidents and human rights activists. The U.S. would be inadvertently aiding foreign governments to abuse dissidents and reformers — including enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention and torture.
But the Obama administration has a choice: It can turn a blind eye to the risks counterradicalization policies pose to dissidents and activists all over the world or pursue safeguards necessary to protect human rights.