This module is a resource for lecturers

Topic 1. Contemporary issues relating to conditions conducive both to the spread of terrorism and the rule of law


Attempts to prevent violent extremism (PVE) and to counter violent extremism (CVE) must adapt not only to the constantly changing profile of violent extremism in the international arena, but also to evolving knowledge about how individuals come to be involved in violent extremism and how violent extremist groups recruit members. Those involved in PVE/CVE efforts look both to address general factors that contribute to propensity to engage in violent extremism and to challenge emerging trends. In line with these goals, this Module discusses some issues that are considered a priority on the PVE agenda for States, regional and international organizations, with a particular focus on four issues:

  • the role of youth and the prevention of violent extremism,
  • the use of gender analysis to prevent and counter violent extremism,
  • how to identify and preserve ‘safe spaces’ for dissent, and
  • why it matters for PVE/CVE efforts to realize the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

Youth and preventing violent extremism

One topical issue in the context of PVE and CVE efforts is how to engage with and empower youth. This includes a discussion about the leverage that engagement and empowerment to prevent violent extremism can have by more effectively addressing common root causes which make youth vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, including “push”and “pull” factors.


Interpretation issues on this topic can be controversial, as there is no universally agreed definition on the age range of youth.

On “Youth”:

a) Defined “as persons of the age of 18-29 years old”. UNSC Resolution 2250 (2015) notices the “variations of definition of the term that may exist on the national and international levels”. (Preamble para. 5).

b) The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) has classified youth as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years of age.

c) Other parameters for the age range of youth are also adopted at the national, regional and international levels. (Youth or young people refers to persons between 15 and 35 years. African Youth Charter, 2006).

Furthermore, “Children” means human beings under the age of 18 years in accordance with article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Youth form a significant component of the global population, currently estimated at 18 percent (based on youth between the ages of 15 and 24, representing 1.1 billion people) (Advocates for Youth). This figure, when combined with all young people under 24 years of age, increases to nearly 40 percent of the world's population. In terms of geographical spread "[a]pproximately 60 percent of youth live in Asia; 15 percent, in Africa; 10 percent, in Latin America and the Caribbean; and the remaining 15 percent, in developed countries and regions" (Advocates for Youth) (For more information, see the latest regional data provided by the World Youth Reports of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Some experts consider that large populations of youth could make States more susceptible to anti-State political violence, and often trigger pre-emptive State repression of youth regardless of whether the larger youth population actually engages in anti-State advocacy (Nordas and Davenport, 2013). In some cases, youth bulges have been considered to be associated with internal conflict across different regime types and economic climates (Urdal, 2006; Beehner, 2007), as well as with increased deaths from terrorism and political violence (e.g., Lord, 2016). These macro-demographic trends have been associated with socio-economic struggles, joblessness, and difficulties maintaining political order.

Connections between an increase in the number of youth and an increase in political violence, however, are not only macro-demographic in nature. Youth populations have been found to be especially susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist organizations (USAID, 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2012; Lombardi, Ragab, and Chin, 2014; Darden, 2019). They tend to be disproportionately targeted and recruited by violent extremist groups for terrorist activities. In addition to such targeting, youth can be impacted by drivers of violent extremism (discussed in Module 2) as much as or even more than adults are. Factors like perceptions of injustice can be more acute in youths than in adults. Shelley, in her analysis of the ‘push’ factors of youths towards violent extremism, made this link when she observed that "[t]errorists could not recruit collaborators, develop their organisations, or maintain a broad support network if there were not pervasive corruption that undermines quality of life, and is repellent to many innocent civilians, especially idealist youth” (Shelley, 2014, p. 38). In other words, youth tend to be more idealistic, and therefore may be more concerned by the impact of corruption and poor management. This includes but is not limited to socio-economic problems, lach of education, and the inability to control internal conflict. Shelley suggests that youth can also be more sensitive to other ‘push’ factors, suggesting that low quality education, often associated with socio-economic difficulties, can result in "many young males being left with diminished opportunities and limited chances for survival within the legitimate economy" (p. 42).

“Push” and “Pull” factors

In reference to recruitment and exploitation of children by terrorist and violent extremist groups:*

““Push factors” can be defined as negative circumstances that the child tries to escape by joining the group, while the “pull factors” represent the positive incentives, attracting the children to join the groups.

Examples of “push factors” include the following:

  • Poverty, marginalization, discrimination and a weakened social structure. These are crucial factors since special risk groups, such as street children, the rural poor, refugee children and internally displaced children may be particularly vulnerable to recruitment.
  • Lack of protection, disruptive social contexts and experience of violence. Children who are left without parents or families to look after them are more vulnerable, especially in conflict areas. At the same time, parents are often coerced into handing over their children; in other instances, parents may “volunteer” their children for ideological reasons or material benefits. Children who have experienced violence, trauma and loss or who have been displaced from their communities also tend to be more vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups.
  • Lack of a feeling of autonomy and identity. Children who feel disenfranchised and without any real opportunities to achieve social success and those who may be searching for answers to the meaning of life may in their personal search for identity be attracted by violent extremist groups.
  • The notion of injustice (whether real or perceived), including because of disappointment with democratic processes, widespread corruption, police violence, and perceived or real discrimination.
  • Lack of education and employment opportunities. These represent crucial factors that may drive a child to seek opportunities within the groups.

Examples of “pull factors” include the following:

  • Propaganda and indoctrination. These have been extensively used to draw children into terrorist and violent extremist groups, often including messages that associate social status and prestige with membership in the groups. Honour and prestige motives have also been particularly relevant in the recruitment of suicide bombers.
  • Revenge and indirect identification with victims of violence. These may trigger anger and desire to avenge the “enemy”. The diffusion of graphic images of armed conflict spreads awareness of the suffering of civilians and combatants and may affect the psychological well-being of individuals outside conflict zones.
  • Previous involvement in the justice system. For children and young people, this has also proved to have a correlation with recruitment into terrorist groups. Joining a terrorist or violent extremist group may be viewed as being “redemptive” or legitimizing the commission of criminal offences. In either case, it may contribute to a sense of meaning, while offering the same as gang membership: power, violence, adventure and a strong identity.
  • Material inducements. These are also used as positive incentives to attract new recruits.’’
* UNODC (2017a). Handbook on Children Recruited and Exploited by Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups: The Role of the Justice System. Vienna: United Nations, (pp.30-31).

It is for such reasons, including the relevance of youth empowerment and the meaningful participation of youth in policymaking, that issues relating to youth and violent extremism have been identified as a priority by policymakers, including from the perspective of international peace and security, at both the international and regional levels. Since some examples of regional initiatives were discussed in Module 2, this section focuses on international measures under the auspices of the United Nations system.

UNSC Resolution 2250 (2015) on Youth, Peace and Security was the first resolution of its kind, giving recognition to the "important and positive contribution of youth in efforts for the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security" (Preamble para. 7). There are five primary pillars to the resolution: participation, protection, prevention, partnerships, and disengagement and reintegration, with the focus being on 18-29 years old persons. The overall objective is to better integrate youth within decision-making processes that impact upon them, including through giving them a meaningful voice (e.g., para. 1). To this end, Member States were encouraged to “increase, as appropriate, their political, financial, technical and logistical support, that take account of the needs and participation of youth in peace efforts, in conflict and post-conflict situations, including those undertaken by relevant entities, funds and programmes, and other relevant bodies.… and actors at regional and international levels” (para. 14). A key underpinning principle is the importance of increased youth empowerment (e.g. para. 16).

The approach of resolution 2250, recognizing the pivotal role of youth as agents of change, including on issues of international peace and security, is reflective of other research findings, e.g. such as those of anthropologist Scott Atran regarding the patterns of recruitment of youths to violent extremist organizations. He concluded that three broad conditions must be satisfied to curb the transition to violence. First, youth must have something to aspire to, something that gives their life significance, e.g. through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship. Secondly, youth must have a positive personal dream with a concrete chance of realization. Lastly, youth must have a chance to create their own local initiatives (Downey, 2015).

The key themes of resolution 2250 were reinforced subsequently in UNSC Resolution 2282 (2016) on the Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, which, in referring to resolution 2250, emphasized "the important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and as a key aspect of the sustainability, inclusiveness and success of peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts” (Preamble). The Preamble further acknowledged "the rise of radicalization to violence and violent extremism, especially among youth, [which] threatens stability and development, and can often derail peacebuilding efforts and foment conflict, and stressing the importance of addressing conditions and factors leading to the rise of radicalization to violence and violent extremism among youth, which can be conducive to terrorism". It expressed particular concern about how terrorists were using new information and communication technologies for terrorist recruitment purposes, whilst reiterating the importance of States, in their counter-terrorist activities, to respect human rights and other obligations under international law. Notably, this resolution is closely connected to UNSC Resolution 1325 (2000) on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ in the sense of how these issues affect young women.

In 2018, an extensive, evidence-based and participatory independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security, entitled The Missing Peace, was published under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary-General in response to a request from the Security Council. One of the study's objectives was to further Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 on "peaceful, just and inclusive societies" (see further Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security). Broad consultations were undertaken, including in seven regions with participation by youth drawn from 149 countries. In terms of its approach, the Progress Study explores and challenges incorrect stereotypes and wrong assumptions about youth and their relationship with violent extremism, which are referred to as "policy panic". The details of these, together with suggested early responses to them, have been included in the 'interest box' below. The study documents six broad, recurring categories of what it calls "the violence of exclusion" together with ways in which young people have moved or could move from marginalization to more meaningful inclusion: political inclusion, economic inclusion, education, gender, injustice and human rights, as well as disengagement and reintegration (pages xii-xiii of the executive summary). One of the Study's overarching and more positive findings was that "In the absence of meaningful opportunities to participate socially, politically and economically, marginalized young people are strikingly creative in forging alternative places of belonging and meaning through which to express themselves" (page xi of the executive summary).

In addition to the Study, the United Nations Secretary-General has included youth as an important issue in his Report to the General Assembly on the implementation of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. In the 2018 Report, several reasons are listed on why youth can be drawn to violent extremism, including lack of hope, lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, and the oppressive nature of some counter-terrorism strategies. It refers to how violent extremist organizations have been able to use “peer-to-peer engagement, the exploitation of grievances, and the use of appealing aesthetics such as digital propaganda inspired by video games” (para. 38) effectively to attract youth. The Report discusses ways to harness the power and enthusiasm of youth for positive change and their important role in contributing to preventing violent extremism. Young people are an “asset to our societies, and they need to be listened to…” as a positive force to social and economic innovation (para. 41).

In 2018, citing The Missing Peace study, the United Nations Security Council supplemented resolution 2250 with UNSC Resolution 2419, calling to increase the role of youth in negotiating and implementing peace agreements. The Security Council reaffirms “the important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts,” and attributes that role to both women and sustainable development. It then expresses concern that violent extremists use technology “for the purposes of recruitment and incitement of youth to commit terrorist acts” and looks to address this problem, mindful of “the challenges faced by youth which put them at particular risk.” The resolution proceeds to call on “all relevant actors to consider ways to increase the inclusive representation of youth in the prevention and resolution of conflict”. It also reaffirms the human rights of youth, States’ responsibility to protect youth, the right to education, and the need to engage youth in leading civil society. Resolution 2419 further requires the production of a report on the implementation of its action items and those of resolution 2250.

In 2020, the Secretary-General's first report on youth, peace and security was submitted to the Security Council on the implementation of UNSC resolution 2419 (2018) and 2250 (2015). This Report covers trends and progress in implementing the youth, peace, and security agendas from December 2015 to December 2019. The Report presents two key findings that emerge from the analysis of the five pillars of UNSC resolution 2250 (2015): participation, protection, prevention, disengagement and reintegration, and partnerships. First, there is "the growing recognition of young people's essential role in peace and security" and "the second is that core challenges remain," including current efforts to address violent extremism." (S/2020/167, para. 10). Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that "responses to violent extremism do not stigmatize or instrumentalize youth but, rather, harness young women and men as agents of change in preventing terrorism and such extremism." It also requires Member States to use additional resources to increase "investment in a whole-of-society approach to the prevention of violent extremism and promote context-sensitive and gender-responsive policies and programmes that respect, protect and promote the rights of young people, foster their resilience and systematically integrate their meaningful participation." (S/2020/167, para. 52).

UNSC Resolution 2535 is the third and most action-oriented resolution on youth (adopted on 14 July 2020). It recognizes the importance of providing opportunities for young people by creating policies to strengthen their resilience against radicalization to violence and terrorist recruitment. The resolution also encourages Member States to prevent terrorists from exploiting communication technology to spread disinformation and terrorist ideologies to young people. (S/RES/2535 (2020), paras. 8 and 9).

While the attention to youth and PVE/CVE is important, a parallel risk exists of the focus going too far and potentially becoming counter-productive. Securitizing happens when a related possible threat is over-emphasized, or something becomes by-definition a threat when the reality is more nuanced. While it is problematic to ignore the role of youth in violent extremism, it is potentially even more problematic to generally consider youth through a securitization perspective, as this could result in injustices which in turn may fuel discontent.

On youth empowerment, see further tool 1 and video 1 on youth radicalization and violent extremism. On violence against children, see also Module 12 of the E4J University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Impact of 'policy panic' on the relationship between youth and violent extremism

Extracts from the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Study (2017 update):*

  • Policy panic about violent extremism based on assumptions that young people can be easily recruited to participate in violent groups –despite the fact that the majority of young people are not involved in violence.
  • Policy panic about the demographic growth of youth populations (‘youth bulges’), particularly within conflict-affected societies. This centres on assumptions that large groups of young people present a risk for violence as a result of the lack of absorptive capacity of these societies and the exclusion as a result. Yet, this fails to recognize the resourcefulness of most youth and the potential value of these ‘youth booms’, as well as the importance of political, social, cultural and economic inclusion of young men and women.
  • Policy assumptions about how unemployment and lack of education (‘idle hands’) stimulate or contribute to youth violence, despite the fact that most young people in these circumstances do not resort to violence. This also often results in the erroneous assumption that education and/or employment serve as stand-alone solutions to the problem of youth violence.
  • Policy panic about the crisis of (forced) migration and the influx of (young) migrants and refugees: young forced migrants are often represented as a drain on the economy, a problem for the education system, competitors for scarce local jobs, intruders who cannot or do not ‘culturally assimilate’, or potential security threats or would-be terrorist infiltrators.
  • The mono-causal explanations which underlie much of these ‘policy panics’ produce solutions that are – at best – palliative or ameliorative. Prevention is not effectively served by these simplistic solutions (e.g., repression, education, employment and control over movement) when these are often based on policy assumptions rather than good data, often address the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of conflict and violence, and seldom engage or listen to young people to assess the validity of these assumptions.

With respect to the five pillars identified in UNSC Resolution 2250 - participation, protection, prevention, partnerships and disengagement and reintegration - the following interim observations have been made in relation to common stereotyping and misassumptions together with how these might be better addressed.

A prevention approach: countering the violence of exclusion

Sustaining peace and preventing violence is best served by addressing the ‘violence of exclusion’. The multi-dimensional experiences of young people’s marginalization and exclusion (e.g. youth plus gender, plus forced migration, plus unemployment and plus victimization) have to be fully understood and appreciated... [A]n effective prevention strategy has to be rooted in a better understanding of and focus on the positive attributes, resources, capacities or attributes (or ‘positive resilience’) of young men and women, in their responses to marginalization and exclusion, and to invest in supporting and sustaining them.

  • Prioritizing Protection [A] prevailing concern expressed by young men and women throughout all the research undertaken for the Progress Study has been the disproportionate victimization and traumatization of youth – at the hands of repressive governments, violent extremists, gangs and organized crime, because of gender-based violence, the particular violations experienced by young forced migrants, etc. Beyond physical violence, young people have also expressed the urgent need for the protection of their rights to organize, associate, move freely and express themselves to effectively pursue their work on peace and security. ..... [Y]oung men and women are themselves active and creative protagonists in the protection realm, from monitoring and documenting human rights and humanitarian violations, to supporting the design and implementation of protection measures, building networks and support structures, and fighting for recognition of their civil, political and socio-economic rights. [A key focus of the Youth, Peace and Security agenda is to provide necessary support and protection to such contributions].
  • Listening to young people to move beyond reductionist and binary understandings of youth identity and motivation Stereotypes deprive young people of their agency and role as positive change agents in society. But defining exclusion and marginalization of young men and women as the core problem, still begs the question of what kind of "inclusion" is the solution. It is not enough to talk about youth "voices" and "representation", or to opt for patronizing gestures. Rather, the "agency" and the "leadership" of young people needs to be supported.
  • Focusing on a ‘positive security’ approach There is strong evidence that moral messaging and strong law enforcement measures are remedial at best, but do not work as effective prevention or deterrence. Although it is neither determinist nor predictive, exposure to violence coupled with lived experiences and perceptions of injustice are key factors in determining whether or not young people may be desensitized to or subsequently predisposed to be involved in violence, and there is a significant danger that violent oppression will produce more violence in response.
  • Understanding youth peacebuilding Youth peacebuilding is often understood as highly localized, community-based, or even familial or individually based, under the radar, under-funded, or volunteer-based. But it should not be assumed to be limited to the local level. Youth peacebuilding is very diversified, spanning diverse social constituencies and different sectors – young indigenous people, young migrants and refugees, victims, urban and rural youth, etc. It also goes beyond the horizontal relationships among youth alone, forging connections across generations and with other thematic sectors and organizations, for example in the human rights, gender and education sectors.
  • Investing in the positive resilience of young people: from a demographic dividend to a peace dividend The priority is to ‘fund the upside’: invest in youth resilience to conflict and in innovation in sustaining peace. This should include strategies to support the creation of an enabling environment, addressing the (social, political, economic and legal) factors that inhibit young people’s peacebuilding and violence prevention work; prioritizing funding for youth-based peacebuilding; enabling the role of youth peacebuilding in ‘listening down’ (engaging at community level); and ‘speaking up’ (advocacy and critical partnership with government and policymakers).
* Youth, Peace and Security (2017). “Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security mandated by Security Council Resolution 2250 (2015).”
Welsh, James, P. (2017). “Moral panics by design: The case of terrorism.Current Sociology, vol. 65, issue 5, pp. 643-662

Gender and violent extremism

In addition to the increased attention given to youth, more focus is also being put on the significance of women, both in their own involvement in or support of extremist violence and the significant part they can play in the efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE), having been often overlooked or underestimated historically (Huckerby, 2012; similarly, e.g. Hoyle et al, 2015; Bhulai, et al, 2016).

With respect to the role of women, the Security Council has recognized the need for greater gender participation and leadership to better inform and progress more effective counter-terrorism and PVE strategies as a cross-cutting issue, in its Resolution 2178 (2014), and reinforced its commitments deriving from UNSC Resolution 2242 (2015).

Although these resolutions are significant in terms of raising the profile of the key roles that women could be playing in the specific contexts of counter-terrorism and PVE, the increased recognition of women in relation to peace and security issues more generally has also been on the Security Council's agenda since UNSC Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security. Eight thematic resolutions have been adopted on this topic – further developed by UNSC Resolution 2242 (2015) and Resolution 2467 (2019) - concerned with promoting gender equality and participation through all phases of security from conflict prevention to humanitarian responses to peace processes to post-conflict resolution and reconstruction. Increasingly, the resolutions deal with other important peace and security matters, such as sexual and gender-based violence in war and conflict. These resolutions are all based on two principles: that treating women well is in itself fundamentally important, and that women’s equality and participation have significant positive payoffs for political life generally and peace and security specifically (e.g., Pratt and Richter-Devroe, 2011. For more information, see the UN website on Women, Peace and Security).

During the last decade, there has been a growing recognition of not only women’s key role in preventing and countering violent extremism, but also of historic deficits and inadequacies in properly integrating gender perspectives within this arena. One notable change has been the recognition and rejection of previous tendencies to stereotype women as passive, helpless, or incapable of violence. (e.g., Gentry and Sjoberg (2015). Not only are these stereotypes problematic for improving the status of women around the world, but their inaccuracy can misinform PVE/CVE strategies and initiatives. If actors assume that women are passive victims, relevant aspects may be missed, including women’s participation in political violence, women’s role in inciting political violence, women’s role in discouraging political violence, and women’s perspectives on ending conflicts and creating peace (e.g., Goldstein, 2001; Brown and Saeed, 2015; True and Eddyono, 2017).

Efforts to address misconceptions about women and gender in and around violent extremism have had significant success. For example, a notable feature of UNSC Resolution 2242 is that it recognizes the different impact that terrorist and violent extremist acts can have on the human rights of women and girls, such as on their health, education and participation in public life, as well as the ways in which they are often targeted by terrorist groups which is often more directly compared with boys and young men (these issues are further illustrated and discussed in video 2 on CVE and women; see as well tool 2). Additionally, recent policy evaluations (see box) have paid attention to the key role of women in preventing violent extremism, whether it is by resisting participation themselves or by discouraging others from participating.

Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities, UN Women

Extracts from the Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities Report (2019 update):*

Since 2017, UN Women has been implementing its largest programmes on P/CVE “Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities” (Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka). The programme engages in pioneering work by building an understanding of women’s diverse roles in violent extremism and promoting their social and economic empowerment to challenge extremist ideology and radicalisation in their communities. Specifically, in Indonesia, 2,000 women increased their business and leadership skills, with 60 local products developed, including branded packaging. In addition, 1,500 women participated in saving and loan schemes through women’s cooperative groups (Koperasi Cinta Damai / Peace Love Cooperative). UN Women, in partnership with the Wahid Foundation, developed the Peace Village Initiative to promote peaceful and resilient communities to cultivate peace. Local women’s groups, supported by the programme, explored ways to promote tolerance and sustain peace within their communities.

Women and Girls as Drivers of Peace and the Prevention of Radicalization, UNFPA

Extracts from the Women as Drivers of Peace and Stability Report (2019):*

In the years 2017 and 2018, UNFPA jointly with UNICEF, UNDP and UNODC, implemented a project which aimed at strengthening the capacity of women religious leaders (WRL) and their engagement in the prevention of violent extremism in their communities. In the course of the project, female religious leaders from 16 communities from Kyrgyzstan participated in the two rounds of Women Leadership Schools (WLS) and the subsequent local initiatives on prevention of radicalization.

Empowering Women Countering Extremism (EWCE) | FDCD and Danmission

The “Empowering Women, Countering Extremism” EWCE is a training programme for young professionals from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Denmark, on the role of women in preventing radical and violent extremism in times of social media within and between their societies. Its objective to exchange information and good practices on addressing the issues of hate speech, hate crime and other manifestations of extremism. The programme combined training and networking workshops, developing a toolkit on countering extremism through social media, launching a mobile application and online initiatives designed and implemented by the trainees themselves within their local communities.

Mothers for Life Network

“Mothers for Life” is a global network of parents who have experienced violent radicalization in their own families. The network aims to give these parents a strong voice and provide them with the safety of a secure network of other families who share similar experiences.

* UN Women (2019). “The Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities Report.”
UNFPA (2019). “Women as Drivers of Peace and Stability Report.”
Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (2016).
Empowering Women Countering Extremism Mothers for Life Network

Commitments to improved gender integration in PVE/CVE is reflected also in the United Nations Secretary General's Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (A/70/674) (PVE Action Plan) -examined in more detail in Module 2. An overarching theme is that those societies that better integrate gender perspectives are less vulnerable to violent extremism: "Women’s empowerment is a critical force for sustainable peace. While women do sometimes play an active role in violent extremist organizations, it is also no coincidence that societies for which gender equality indicators are higher are less vulnerable to violent extremism." (Para. 53). In a similar vein, achievement of SDG 4 on ensuring quality education and SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is regarded in the VE Action Plan as important elements for addressing drivers of violent extremism. (Para. 44(e)). In line with the VE Action Plan, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Executive Board adopted in 2015 a decision (197 EX/46) on “UNESCO’s role in preventing violent extremism through education”. “The importance of education as a tool to help to prevent terrorism and violent extremism” was also highlighted during the General Assembly sessions on the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review in 2016 and 2018 (A/70/L.55; A/72/L.62). Following these decisions, several initiatives to prevent violent extremism through education (PVE-E) have been implemented by international organizations, NGOs and national governments both at the international and national level. Specifically, UNESCO played a leading role in strengthening the capacities of national education systems by developing programmes and educational resources to prevent violent extremism through education (PVE-E) for policymakers, teachers, and other education stakeholders. Furthermore, the UNODC’s Education for Justice (E4J) initiative partnered with UNESCO to promote the rule of law through education (“Global Citizenship Education”).

Education can also serve as an effective tool for enhancing women’s empowerment. The related primary challenge is how to operationalize such increased empowerment and integration of women's contributions and leadership in practice, both more generally within societies as well as across sectors and institutions of special relevance to PVE/CVE, notably governmental, security and civil society ones. Key questions to ask include: How can you tell when women’s participation is enough? How many women? Does it matter what parts of society the participating women represent? If women are participating, how best to be ensure that their voices are heard? That their perspectives are being understood? (e.g., Anderlini, 2000). To this end, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made several recommendations to States (para. 53), namely to:

(a) Mainstream gender perspectives across efforts to prevent violent extremism;

(b) Invest in gender-sensitive research and data collection on women’s roles in violent extremism, including on identifying the drivers that lead women to join violent extremist groups, and on the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on their lives, in order to develop targeted and evidence-based policy and programming responses;

(c) Include women and other underrepresented groups in national law enforcement and security agencies, including as part of counter-terrorism prevention and response frameworks;

(d) Build the capacity of women and their civil society groups to engage in prevention and response efforts related to violent extremism;

(e) Ensure that a portion of all funds dedicated to addressing violent extremism are committed to projects that address women’s specific needs or empower women, as recommended in the Report to the Security Council on women and peace and security (S/2015/716).

Point (a), gender mainstreaming, is a policy concept which has been adopted over the past two decades by many of the world’s States and international organizations. The idea behind gender mainstreaming is that thinking about gender will be included into policy decision-making and policy evaluations. In practice, this means that a key question asked about what policies will be chosen and how they are understood to work is how they deal with gender. Are women’s specific needs met? Are women’s specific perspectives taken into account? Are men’s specific needs met? Are men’s specific needs considered? What are the gender implications of any given policy? Applied to PVE/CVE policies, how are they taking into account men’s and women’s needs and perspectives? What are the gender implications of PVE/CVE policies? In different ways, the Secretary-General’s points (b) to (e) implement the ideals of gender mainstreaming in PVE/CVE policies.

Although such developments are encouraging, further progress is required to better integrate gender perspectives in a truly cross-cutting manner. The Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism has observed the implementation of gender mainstreaming that has been superficial, informal and/or only at the more local rather than strategic levels, often reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes (women as victims of terrorism or as mothers) in the process (General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/31/65, paras. 52-53). If attempts to pay attention to gender reinforce problematic stereotypes, they can be counterproductive. If attempts to pay attention to gender include an unrepresentative sample of women, they can produce bad policy. If attemtps to pay attention to gender remain superficial, they can be ineffective.

In the same Report, the Special Rapporteur further urged caution and attention as to when and how women would be more involved in countering and preventing violent extremism activities, especially where these might be "unsafe, unprincipled, or counter-productive." (A/HRC/31/65, para. 53). Involving women in P/CVE unreflectively may put women at risk without preventing or countering violent extremism. For such reasons, it is considered by experts to be essential that the role of women in national and international security related efforts is one of genuine empowerment and participation based on equality and not, e.g., exploitation or misuse which could expose them to increased risk, such as acts of terrorist retribution or an increased risk of gender-based violence (Ifemeje, Ewulum and Ibekwe, 2015, p. 40).

Women are not only potential victims or have a role in preventing or countering violent extremism. Women may sometimes participate in violence and have primary (propagandist, recruiters, active fighters) and secondary (mothers, wives) roles in violent extremism (e.g, Singh et al, 2017; Eager, 2016; Speckhard and Akhmedova, 2006). Although the Women's Front of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was unusual at the time for its use of women to commit suicide terrorist attacks (see case study 1), an increasing number of terrorist groups have taken a similar approach. For example, in July 2015, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent's Shaheen Force was created, namely a female suicide training wing with apparently 500 recruits. In August 2020, ISIL linked Abu Sayyaf group utilized two female suicide bombers against the Philippine government security forces and civilians, leaving 16 people dead and 78 wounded in the Sulu province. Women are often an integral part of recruitment efforts, such as by al Qaeda and ISIL (Singh et al, 2017).

Some commentators attribute the phenomenon of female suicide terrorism to inter-related factors, namely: "(i) tormented society, (ii) individual grievances, and (iii) a terrorist organisation with an effective indoctrination structure" located within particular socio-political contexts (Bhatia and Knight, 2011, p. 7). Others suggest that the question of why women participate in political violence is and should be the same as the question of why men participate in political violence –that people have a wide variety of motivations for violent extremism, and sex does not make them vary significantly (Gentry and Sjoberg, 2011).

These issues are explored further in case study 1 on Women in the Tamil Tigers.

The importance of mainstreaming gender and the impact of stereotyping and assumptions on gender is further explored in Module 9 on Gender Dimensions of Ethics of the Module Series on Integrity and Ethics, Module 8 on Corruption and Gender of the Module Series on Anti-Corruption, Module 15 on Gender and Organized Crime of the Teaching Module Series on Organized Crime, and Module 13 on Gender Dimension in Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons of the Teaching Module Series on Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons.

Encroachment on or denial of 'safe spaces'

Another topical issue in the context of PVE/CVE approaches relates to whether or not the denial of 'safe spaces' can facilitate the path towards violent extremism.

In terms of the perceived benefits, the provision of a 'safe space' is regarded by some as providing a "supportive environment where community members can comfortably and constructively discuss sensitive topics among peers, mentors, and community leaders without the fear of shame, stigma, or some other negative repercussion, such as government interference" (Muslim Public Affairs Council, p. 17). It has further been suggested that the creation of safe spaces can provide a forum that positively contributes towards "healing community rifts and tension" (OSCE, ODIHR and CIDOB, 2007, para. 11). As was indicated by the United Kingdom before the Human Rights Council in 2016, the provision of safe spaces can facilitate the development of critical thinking and provide the necessary freedom that "allow[s] youth to challenge the arguments of violent extremists" (A/HRC/33/29, para. 46). For such reasons, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism previously suggested that this aspect of the United Kingdom’s Counter Extremism Strategy be adopted by other States (General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/31/65, para. 28). That said, there are tensions inherent within the provision of safe spaces - whether physical or virtual in nature - in particular the concern that they may have the opposite to the desired effect in facilitating rather than countering violent extremism (Land, 2017). That said, little statistical evidence exists in support of a causal relationship between the reduction in violent extremist behaviour and a reduction in safe spaces online (Alava, Frau-Meigs and Hassan, 2017, p. 46).

Furthermore, many complexities and significant challenges exist for governments as how best to meet legitimate security imperatives, such as national PVE measures and strategies, whilst also complying with their human rights obligations, especially the four fundamental freedoms explored in Module 13 (freedom of religion/opinion and expression/assembly/association) (General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/31/79, p. 57, RUS 3/2015; A/HRC/29/50, p. 52, MDA 1/2015; A/HRC/25/74, p. 50, UZB 2/2013). An overarching concern is always the potential for any restrictions to be abused, including through the imposition of unnecessary or unduly stringent restrictions, which go beyond what is necessary on national security grounds; and/or that restrictions are imposed for non-permissible reasons, such as to silence political opposition, legitimate human rights defenders in their criticism against, e.g., authoritarian regimes (see General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/33/29, para. 21). For example, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief expressed concern that vaguely defined powers could be abused to restrict, or even control, certain communities, going so far as to criminalize beliefs that should be considered as legitimate under international human rights law (General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/28/66/Add.1, para. 49). Notably, simply having or peacefully expressing views regarded by some as "extreme" should only be criminalized if clearly linked to unlawful violence of criminal acts (e.g., hate speech or incitement to terrorism) (General Assembly Report A/63/337, para. 62).

Similarly, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression believed many of the efforts to combat hate speech (including requests to block websites) were misguided and that greater emphasis should be given to addressing the underlying causes of, e.g., hate speech (General Assembly Report A/67/357, paras. 32, 33 and 56). Such sentiments were reflected as well in the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Countering Violent Extremism issued in 2016, which articulated a number of general principles as well as specific recommendations. For example, the principle that "[e]veryone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, especially on matters of public concern, including issues relating to violence and terrorism, as well as to comment on and criticise the manner in which States and politicians respond to these phenomena" (para. 1(a)); and the recommendation that "[a]ll CVE/PVE programmes and initiatives should respect human rights and the rule of law and contain specific safeguards against abuse in this regard. They should be independently reviewed on a regular basis to determine their impact on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, and these reviews should be made public." (Para. 2(b)).

From a PVE/CVE perspective, the denial of safe spaces in which to express frustration and dissent may in and of itself become a contributing factor for a person to feel further marginalized and therefore seek other outlets for their frustrations, which violent extremists could manipulate for their own purposes. In this regard, a former special rapporteur expressed concern at the restriction of the spaces in which civil society operates (General Assembly, Human Rights Council Report A/HRC/31/65, para. 28). Similarly, the United Nations Human Rights Council previously urged States to create and maintain a "safe and enabling environment" (A/HRC/27/L.24, para. 3) due to the ability of such spaces to empower persons belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups (A/HRC/27/L.24, para. 4). In parallel, the provision of a safe space may also serve to further empower a community, making individuals feel less marginalized within a society, thereby addressing, at least in part, one of the main drivers of violent extremism identified in the United Nations Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (discussed in Module 2).

Sustainable development goals and violent extremism

The objectives of preventing violent extremism and progressing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are indeed supportive of one-another. As indicated within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) global framework on Preventing Violent Extremism through Inclusive Development and the Promotion of Tolerance and Respect for Diversity (2016), on the one hand, sustainable development is "contingent on the peaceful and inclusive co-existence between groups"; whilst, on the other hand, peaceful co-existence can be negatively impacted upon where there is significant socio-economic inequality (2016, p. 9).

This echoes the position adopted by the United Nations Secretary-General in the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (VE Action Plan), namely that one means of addressing several of the identified primary drivers of violent extremism -such as structural ‘push’ factors - is to align State development policies with the SDGs (A/70/674, p. 12). A number of SDGs are directly relevant to PVE, including: ending poverty in all its forms everywhere (SDG 1); ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all (SDG 4); achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls (SDG 5); promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (SDG 8); reducing inequality within and among countries (SDG 10); and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG 11).

In response to the driver of lack of socio-economic opportunities, for instance, SDGs 1 (no poverty), 4 (quality education) and 8 (work and economic growth) are of particular relevance. A partial solution is the generation by States of high and sustainable levels of growth to create much-needed jobs for young people, reduce poverty and unemployment, improve equality, counter corruption, and effectively manage relationships among different communities in line with their human rights obligations (UNDP, 2016, p. 14). In parallel, it is important that States comply with their other obligations, including under international human rights law. Of special note here is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, which requires States parties to "progressively realize" its specified rights. These include the right to work (article 6), the right to an adequate standard of living (article 11) and the right to education (article 13). Notably, the VE Action Plan, in referring to international obligations, expressly highlighted the importance of realizing economic, social and cultural rights, together with the importance of non-discrimination (para. 28).

With respect to marginalization and discrimination, of most relevance are SDG 5 (on gender equality), and SDG 10 (on reducing inequalities). SDG 5 draws attention to the need to "[e]nd all forms of discrimination against women and girls" (UNGA Resolution A/RES/70/1, p. 18) whilst recognizing the positive benefits for society when women have "full and effective participation and equal opportunities at all levels of decision-making" (p. 18). These SDGs have long been recognized as significant by the international community and are reinforced by States' existing human rights law obligations, together with any other national constitutional or legislative provisions in force. With respect to human rights, several obligations are of special relevance. One is the principle of non-discrimination contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR), (discussed further in Module 12). In addition to the dedicated non-discrimination principle (article 26), which may be violated, it is also an overarching principle applying to all other ICCPR substantive rights (article 2(1)). It prohibits discrimination of any kind, "such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status". This principle applies equally to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights as provided for in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR article 2(2)). Furthermore, article 15(1) ICESCR reinforces the right of all individuals to participate in cultural life. This illustrates the connectedness of development and human rights principles which should underpin PVE/CVE efforts.

UNDP has proposed concrete suggestions for addressing many of the underlying issues associated with gender inequality, marginalization, alienation and discrimination (UNDP, 2016). Concrete proposals have been framed around the elements of "removing structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment", "preventing and responding to gender-based violence", "promoting women’s participation and leadership in all forms of decision-making ", and "strengthening gender-responsive strategies in crisis" (UNDP, 2018, Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2021). Such issues are discussed further in video 3: UNDP Global Meeting on PVE.

Key issues in connection with poor governance, violations of human rights and the rule of law are explored in detail throughout the E4J Counter-Terrorism University Module Series. Suffice to note here that SDG 16 is of particular relevance. This goal aims to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels". Recalling the five identified primary drivers of violent extremism around which the VE Action Plan is framed, SDG 16 is cross-cutting across the other four drivers. It is evident that development policies that adequately engage with inequalities and structural weaknesses - such as by creating socio-economic opportunities, addressing political exclusion, improving youth engagement and the empowerment of women, and tackling issues of poor governance, corruption, violations of human rights and injustice - must be fully embedded within PVE/CVE policies if these are to be effective. As the Secretary-General concluded in the VE Action Plan, "[w]hen Governments embrace international human rights norms and standards, promote good governance, uphold the rule of law and eliminate corruption, they create an enabling environment for civil society and reduce the appeal of violent extremism" (A/70/674, para. 50).

According to the Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals Report of the Secretary-General published in 2020, conflict, insecurity, weak institutions and limited access to justice remain a significant threat to sustainable development. Millions of people have been deprived of their security, human rights and access to justice. In 2018, the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million, the highest level recorded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in nearly 70 years. The COVID-19 pandemic is potentially leading to an increase in social unrest and violence, which would greatly undermine the world’s ability to meet the targets of Goal 16. Nevertheless, some progress in reaching the targets has still been observed.

For example, the number of countries with binding laws and policies giving individuals a right to obtain access to information held by public authorities (the right to information) has continued to rise, reaching 127 in 2019. At least 43 countries have adopted such guarantees in the past ten years, 40 per cent of them in Africa. In 2019, 40 per cent of countries had a national human rights institution that had successfully achieved compliance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles). Access to internationally recognized national human rights institutions, however, remains overdue in many countries.

In recent years, the connectedness of PVE and sustainable development has become better understood. This is further illustrated by UNDP’s Journey to Extremism in Africa, which observed that there is an increasing "high-level recognition of the importance of development approaches in tackling the root causes, drivers and consequences of violent extremism as they variously play out in different settings" . Yet, as this UNDP Report also acknowledges, challenges remain in terms of better aligning institutional thinking with development goals, such as the need to adopt more multi-sectoral approaches across government. Furthermore, the Report notes that "military solutions alone will not deliver" the sought PVE outcomes, indicating the need for a conjoined development and securitized approach, fully respecting the rule of law (2017, p. 7).

For enduring, sustainable outcomes to be realized, there must be the availability of effective budgets in tandem with targeted PVE programmes linked to sustained development. The significance of this approach should not be understated. In this sense, Meagher has suggested that unless the underlying structural causes of inequality and exclusion are addressed, a significant proportion of the population could be left behind, resulting in a rise in extremist political responses, and, possible violent conflict (Meagher, 2015, p. 850).

Next page: Topic 2. Contemporary issues relating to the right to life
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