UN must have uncomfortable conversation on extremism
There will be few more pointed daggers at the throat of states who gather for the UN General Assembly this year than extremism and those who cloak their ideological or religious disputes with others in violence, as some twisted manifestation of the intensity of their beliefs. The consequences of the persistence of terror associated with such extremism, given new oxygen through recent events in Afghanistan, will not be lost on anyone at this more minimalist meeting of nations, and should encourage an urgent debate on global efforts to challenge and roll back the dark tide disrupting so many lives worldwide.
Part of this debate will no doubt center on the efforts of the UN itself to sponsor and drive counter-extremism action, and to what extent it is navigating with any success its familiar pitfalls between self-interest and collective action. It should not be a comfortable conversation.
It is not that there has been a lack of significant efforts to drive and deliver a coherent strategy. Post 9/11, the UNGA worked to pull disparate elements together, recognizing the ambiguity that attaches to unacceptable violence, while coincidentally serving some states’ interests. Individual sanctions regimes targeted the finance behind terror, the use of foreign fighters, the weaponry and the money laundering. These singular efforts morphed into the more comprehensive 2006 General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which brought agreement over often quite divisive elements of the whole counterterror narrative.
But more was needed and greater emphasis became placed on preventing violent extremism, recognizing that countering the drivers was surely as vital as preventing attacks and physically combating those inflicting terror. By 2016, the UN’s Plan of Action was compiled, advocating national plans to tackle issues from strengthening the rule of law, good governance and human rights to promoting gender equality and women.
All of this is “good” and the encouragement, seminars, conferences and youth engagement appropriately devoted will have undoubtedly helped sow seeds that will give many people the chance of a future the propagators of extremism would deny them.
But the scourge is still there, arguably more virulent than ever. The success of the 83-nation Global Coalition Against Daesh on the ground in Iraq and Syria remained uncertain, rightly judging that the ideological campaign conducted against vulnerable minds on social media is much more of a “forever war.”
So, if the conversations in New York are to bear better fruit, then the UN must urge the discussions to venture into more unpalatable political areas.
Let me outline a couple of examples. Religious extremism will never be dealt with by an international communique or a conference. Acceptance of differences in religious practices must be led by a combination of clerics and those in secular power. They each have a vested interest — history suggests that the human will is unconquerable. Accordingly, accommodation between those of difference is the only path to the freedom to live in “peace and security,” a phrase in the draft of every communique from every regional conference.
The UN must encourage all those who wish to live free from the knock on the door to support those who advocate such tolerance, and face down those who dissent. I discussed this with Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for minorities, just weeks before he was cruelly assassinated for opposing the misuse of blasphemy laws a decade ago. The abuse of faith for the gaining or retaining of power needs to be high on the agenda of those who are paying more than lip service to tackling religious extremism.
Secondly, the impact of corruption and poor governance needs even greater emphasis than it gets at present. Extremism thrives on victimhood and few who see their leaders enriching themselves need much persuasion that they are the victims. Few are innocent — as London’s easy financial atmosphere bears witness. Couple that with a religious justification for exacting revenge and no seminars will put a stop to what comes next.
If the General Assembly is to bear better fruit, then the UN must urge the discussions to venture into more unpalatable political areas.
Lastly, states must now stop fooling themselves that pacts with religious or ideological extremists will secure them peace. From those who harbor terrorists in the hope that they will direct their activity elsewhere to those who pay for them and those who say little but welcome the weakening of rivals — all this is fueling a wave that will ultimately engulf them all.
The Taliban’s success is being triumphantly messaged far and wide, from those whose sense of religious extremism is not confined by borders to mindless right-wing bigots in the US who welcome a blow against what they consider to be a “liberal and godless America” at the hands of what they imagine to be a “conservative religious force.”
The 76th UNGA needs to recognize that extremism has been given a boost and it must play its part in new strategies to defend its charter and values.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK