ASTANA – A global assessment of what constitutes a terrorist group, sanctions against states that support them, a global database of extremist content online and a mechanism for removing it as well as a regional awareness network to promote research and training on countering extremism were among the topics presented during the first day of the Central and South Asian Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism in Astana on June 29. The conference also included more general calls for increased cooperation and collective action both between governments and between government and civil society to prevent extremist thought taking hold in the region.
Kazakh Prime Minster Karim Massimov focused on cooperative efforts in his opening remarks, saying a large role in the fight against extremism would fall to civil society. “We have to join our forces with all constructive forces in this world who are ready to counter violent extremism. That is why we have to boost our contacts and cooperation with law enforcement agencies all over the world. Currently, there is no convention on fighting violent extremism that could be an international law … there is no overarching international legislation to fight this threat,” he said.
The June 29–30 conference, bringing together representatives of 18 countries, including nine Central and South Asian states, as well as the EU and the UN, saw calls for cooperation between states, regions, governments, religions and local civil and community organisations to prevent terrorism, as well as explorations of some possible root causes of terrorism and steps being taken to prevent them.
In his opening remarks, U.S. Customs and Border Control Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said security will not come from stopping security threats, but strengthening the social fabric and the way governments interact with populations. “Violent extremism is spreading geographically, and no region, no country, no community is immune from the threat, and that is why this conference is so crucial,” he said. “One way to meet the challenge is by empowering local communities to develop effective prevention and intervention programmes. Local communities maintain the most credible and persuasive voices to challenge that ideology.”
Kerlikowske suggested a regional awareness network to generate local research on the drivers of violent extremism as well as training. He also advocated for empowering civil society partners, including women, faith leaders and victims; strengthening human rights safeguards for all communities; and fighting corruption among public officials, in particular law enforcement agencies.
These themes were picked up throughout panels on “Violent Extremism in Central and South Asia: Threat Assessment and Countermeasures,” and “Ways of reducing the threat of violent extremism in media and on the Internet,” in discussions focused on the circumstances that seem to give rise to terrorism, including a shaky human rights foundation, as some emphasised, as well as poverty and the media environment.
“It is important for the international community to recognise that violent extremism is not only to be combated, but it also can be prevented,” said Petko Draganov, special representative of the UN Secretary-General and head of the Ashgabat-based UN Regional Centre for Preventative Diplomacy for Central Asia.
“We need to take a hard look at the root causes of the phenomenon and acknowledge that no small amount of young men and young women are drawn to organisations that espouse violent extremism. Unfulfilled social or psychological needs drive them,” he said. “An integral part of this whole society approach … is the acknowledgement that preventing violent extremism and promoting human rights go hand in hand. Without meaningful recognition and implementation of core human rights, states aiming to protect their people from extremism are at risk of pushing their youth into violent predatory groups.”
Nurtay Abykayev, chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, said his country faced “massive” recruiting efforts and that more than 150 Kazakhs and more than 200 women, widows and children had travelled to Syria and other areas of conflict to fight for terrorist groups. He called for large international organisations to be more forthcoming in sharing their experiences. He also suggested creating a universal concept of terrorism recognised across the world, a universal register of terrorist organisations and joint political and economic sanctions to levy against them. Abykayev also said it was time to develop a universal mechanism to delete extremist content from the Internet, a suggestion echoed later by Erlan Aliyev, first deputy director of the Centre of Analysis and Information at Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Investment and Development.
“We should all think globally and act collectively,” said EU Special Representative for Central Asia Peter Burian. The updated EU strategy for Central Asia announced earlier in the summer provides ground for strengthening cooperation in fighting extremism, he said, and is underpinned with financial resources for regional and bilateral cooperation programmes from 2014–2020 that have been increased by 56 percent to more than one billion euros. In EU foreign relations, more efforts will be made to develop crisis prevention tools and early warning systems for crises abroad, he said. He, too, had a message about human rights – that too repressive a crackdown against information generally could only fuel grievances that give rise to terrorism.
In sessions on “Innovative approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism,” and “Developing national strategies and action plans for countering violent extremism,” participants also discussed government efforts at helping children be resilient to terrorist threats and different methods of global and domestic communication.
Pablo Rodriquez, plans and operations officer of the Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications with the U.S. State Department outlined American efforts to counter and subvert extremist messages, but said the void must be filled not by the U.S. alone.
Faheem Ahamed, CEO of Lapis Communications, an organisation that works to counter extremist communication, called for rethinking ways to counter extremist messages: to stop reacting and start focusing on changing mindsets rather than countering arguments. “What we need to focus on is the master narrative, rather than the counter narrative. There is no master narrative for the Middle East, there is no master narrative internationally of who we are and what we stand for,” he said.
Concluding the first day of the conference, participants agreed on a series of steps to enhance counterterrorism efforts in Central and South Asia ahead of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) leaders’ summit set for September in New York.
The steps include identifying persons responsible for countering extremism in each country in the region, developing inclusive national CVE strategies involving local governments, civil society, and the private sector; implementing Global Counterterrorism Forum good practices; providing support for national nongovernmental organisations fighting local factors causing extremism; developing CVE training programmes for public servants that promote rights; developing programmes for countering radicalisation in prisons and for rehabilitating violent extremist offenders; and strengthening the capacity of civil society organisations and others in the region engaged in providing information that counters hateful, violence-filled messages of extremists.
In an interview after the first day, Kerlikowske said the recognition of the need for broad cooperation was heartening. “I think that’s real progress in this – in [recognising] that law enforcement is not the answer and that government is not the only answer – that there’s much more to this complex problem, involving a lot of other key players.”
“You’re not going to arrest your way out of this particular problem,” he noted. And law enforcement itself must be seen in a more multifaceted way – “as a protector of human rights, of speech,” he commented.