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UN counter-extremism initiatives must not infringe on free expression rights

IFEX members and global partners call on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure recent counter-extremism initiatives do not violate fundamental rights to free expression, assembly, and information.

Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais Wilson
52 Rue des Pâquis
CH-1201 Geneva, Switzerland

Dear Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein,

In advance of the Panel Discussion on “human rights and preventing and countering violent extremism”at the 31st Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the undersigned human rights organisations write to raise serious concerns regarding the potential impact of initiatives to counter and prevent violent extremism (PVE) on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

At the outset, we recognise that PVE initiatives that are based on a clear definition of the phenomenon being addressed, have a proper evidential basis for harm reduction, and that respect human rights and civil society space, can play a potentially positive role.

We welcome that the Secretary General's recently launched “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” acknowledges the negative impact of violence on the enjoyment of human rights and the rule of law. We note that the Plan of Action recognises that the absence of an agreed definition of what constitutes “violent extremism” poses a danger of its conflation with “terrorism”. As the Secretary General further notes, this conflation of “violent extremism” with “terrorism” may “lead to the justification of an overly broad application of counter-terrorism measures, including against forms of conduct that should not qualify as terrorist acts”. As we have seen in the last decade and a half, the overly broad application of counter-terrorism measures has had a profoundly detrimental impact on the enjoyment of human rights. As discussed below, these concerns are heightened when, as the Plan of Action indicates, states individually define and apply the terms “violent extremism” and “terrorism.” Moreover, criminalising or otherwise prohibiting or sanctioning conduct without a clear definition is incompatible with the principle of legality, a basic rule of law precept.

We are concerned that HRC resolution 30/15 on “Human Rights and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism”, as adopted by vote after substantial oral revisions, fails to properly capture the danger for abuse of PVE initiatives, and that it provides inadequate language aimed to protect human rights. We encourage you through your engagement with the upcoming panel discussion to address these deficiencies.

While framed in the language of promoting human rights, the push to encourage PVE initiatives as a response to terrorism ignores the risk of serious adverse human rights consequences of some of these programmes. “Violent extremism” and related terminology such as “radicalisation” are poorly defined concepts, which open the door to human rights and other abuses. Several governments already routinely label political opponents, journalists, and human rights defenders as “extremists” or “terrorists”. Identifying “violent extremism” as the problem only provides these governments more grounds to stifle freedom of expression and crush dissent. Moreover, some states are now promoting another category, that of “non-violent extremism,” adding to the definitional confusion – and potentially resulting in the criminalisation of conduct that is not linked in any way with acts of violence.

In many parts of the world, PVE initiatives may compromise the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the communities they target, undermine the work of human rights defenders as well as the independence of civil society. While packaged as positive measures, many PVE initiatives have a significant potential to threaten the human rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, the right to privacy, and the freedoms of expression, association, and religion or belief.

Moreover, the evidential basis for PVE initiatives achieving their intended effect is often questionable, as they may alienate the very people they are meant to help. Such initiatives are often perceived as stigmatising, discriminatory and as a form of “soft surveillance” by members of the communities they target. Indeed, many of them have voiced concern that the security and intelligence services, in league with law enforcement agencies, may use PVE programmes to attempt to recruit informers, creating fear and distrust. Moreover, while PVE initiatives are often framed as not addressing a particular ideology or religion, the communities and individuals currently targeted are overwhelmingly Muslim, with some programmes specifically targeting and stigmatising Muslim women.

Some PVE initiatives may be welcomed on the basis of their bringing much-needed resources to communities to address economic and social issues assumed to be connected to the causes of violent extremism. However, where situated in the framework of safeguarding national security, these initiatives can prove divisive and counterproductive, as they are often perceived as being premised on and reinforcing of negative and false stereotypes of a unique association among Muslims, terrorism and violence.

Other PVE initiatives promote particular forms of intervention to divert or disrupt individuals from an alleged pathway to “violent extremism”. These often target individuals, again overwhelmingly Muslims, on the basis of misconceived assumptions about the ease with which individuals susceptible to acts of violence can be profiled and with little or no evidence for the efficacy of interventions. They often require the active collaboration of public service providers (such as in social services, health or education) and security or law enforcement agencies, with interventions often triggered by lawful behaviour. In the context of education, for example, we have observed such mechanisms being mobilised in response to protected forms of expression or religious practice, including by young children, infringing on the rights to education and expression, and further exacerbating distrust and marginalisation.

We are also concerned by PVE proposals that prohibit targeted individuals' access to the Internet or specific online platforms, measures for the blocking of lawful online content, and blanket restrictions on access to specific platforms or encryption services. We increasingly see governments seeking to enlist private companies to “voluntarily” monitor or remove lawful content on the basis of its alleged connections to “violent extremism”, where governments themselves lack these powers. These measures often lack proper procedural safeguards and pose a serious danger to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online. Governments and inter-governmental bodies too often overlook the enormous potential of a free and open Internet to enable robust debate and make a positive contribution to PVE.

We encourage you to carefully consider these concerns as you prepare your contribution for the discussion of PVE at the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council.


ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Afghanistan Journalists Center
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
Cambodian Centre for Independent Media
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Committee to Protect Journalists
Federation of Nepali Journalists
Freedom Forum
Free Media Movement
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Globe International Center
Gulf Centre for Human Rights
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Human Rights Watch
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists
International Press Institute
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Rights Agenda
Media Watch
Mizzima News
National Union of Somali Journalists
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN Canada
PEN International
Privacy International
Social Media Exchange - SMEX
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Access Now
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development
Association for Progressive Communications
Australian Privacy Foundation
Charity & Security Network
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
English PEN
European Digital Rights (EDRi)
International Commission of Jurists
International Federation for Human Rights - FIDH
International Humanist and Ethical Union
International Service for Human Rights
La Quadrature du Net
Muslims for Progressive Values
West African Human Rights Defenders' Network (WAHRDN)

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