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Ms. Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Panel discussion on the Human Rights Dimensions of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism

17 March 2016 at 15:00 room XX
Palais des Nations, Geneva

Mr. President,
Colleagues and friends,

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to this important panel on the human rights dimensions of preventing and countering violent extremism.

The Secretary-General’s recent Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism is rights affirming, ambitious and far-reaching.  It expands our vision so that we may take into account the broader range of intersecting  factors that underlie, foster and promote violent extremism.  Only with such a diagnosis can we begin then to devise the more effective prevention programmes that this multi-dimensional threat to human security demands of us.

The Plan of Action highlights that violent extremism is the child of many parents - discrimination or injustice - whether actual or perceived; political disenfranchisement; a sense among young people of powerlessness, of denial of identity; of hopelessness.

As the Secretary-General emphasised presenting the Plan of Action, in recent years, “an utter disregard for human rights has often made things worse.”

Prevention of violent extremism  is not for the feint hearted or the indifferent.   For it demands of us mobilisation of a multitude of actors drawn from a wide range of perspectives, across a range of sectors and diverse programmatic areas.  It requires of us all, a strong grounding in human rights and reliance on the buttress that is the rule of law. And it asks of us all, a higher tolerance for being disagreed with.

Three core messages must be elevated in this context to compensate for the popular but false promise found in their disregard.

•     Responses to violent extremism that respect and protect human rights are more effective and sustainable.
•     Equality and non-discrimination are the roots for a strong foundation for preventing and countering violent extremism.
•     Accountability for human rights violations and abuses is essential for enduring solutions to violent extremism. has long-lasting effects.

(1.  Need for a human rights compliant response)

Regarding my first point: As the SG's Plan of Action emphasizes, the evidence is clear – the breeding ground for violent extremism is heightened in contexts of poor governance and “repressive policies and practices which violate human rights”.  The negative impact of heavy-handed counter-terrorism responses in the years following 9/11, have widened the rift between communities when bridges were needed, have deepened distrust when investment in trust was called for  and generated divisive – often hateful- public discourse.

From this immediate past history, we have key lessons to learn – for example, that selective application of the term “violent extremism” only to Muslim believers reinforces intolerance and discrimination.

In fact, upholding respect for freedoms of religion, belief, opinion and expression is fundamental to the struggle against violent extremism. 

But in this, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of safeguarding the space for civil society to voice the concerns of diverse groups and communities, and to contribute to people’s involvement in decision-making.

Positive action – for example in the form of direct support to human rights defenders and civil society, and the immediate deterrence of reprisals against those who speak out, should be deemed essential parts of any strategy to prevent or counter violent extremism.

It is crucial that history’s lessons inform our response to violent extremism today. 

Actions and measures taken to prevent or counter violent extremism must not be allowed to place unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on human rights, including on the right to equality, to freedom of expression, to freedom of assembly.

(2.  Ensuring equality and non-discrimination)

On my second point, regarding equality and non-discrimination: while more research is needed on the social and other determinants of violent extremism, it is clear that destructive paths lead directly from socio-economic marginalization to violence. 

Policies and laws that combat social exclusion or marginalization thus are essential elements to the effective prevention and countering of violent extremism.

Enhancing access to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by and for everyone, on an equal basis, is key.  That access inoculates.  It is the life line by which individuals, communities and societies can be immunized against the rhetoric of violent extremism. 

We cannot underestimate the toxic toll that is exacted by marginalization and exclusion.  Substantive and equal participation of all groups in a community in all aspects of political and public life – so that individuals, groups and communities feel and are properly represented by their institutions – that is the key to the sense of belonging to – to the being invested in – a society. 

In this, respect for women’s human rights too, including for their right to active and full participation in public life, is indispensable.

Quality education based on human rights also plays a key role in helping to create understanding and mutual respect between different identities and communities. 

Prophylaxis against hateful acts begins with the promotion of tolerance, pluralism, inclusion and participation of all communities in a society.

(3. Ensuring accountability for human rights violations and abuses)

Regarding my third point: The SG’s Plan of Action underscores that violent extremism must be met with accountability. 

Accountability measures for acts of violence are not only a matter of legal obligation: they are the very basis on which public trust may be fostered - trust in public institutions, in public duty bearers and trust in public leaders.

Conversely, impunity serves only to blur the lines between those who are disheartened and angry and those who are criminal – those who violate rights.  It  undermines the rule of law and destabilises the very basis for fair and just societies. 

Indeed, where counter-terrorism measures have led to human rights violations, this injustice has been a rallying cry by violent extremist groups in recruitment of new supporters.

Access to justice and remedies is crucial for the dignity of victims whether the abuse to which they have been subjected is at the hand of the State or a non-State actor.  It is key for the dignity of victims of terrorism and violent extremism.  And, no less so for women and girls specifically who have suffered torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence.  Victims must be provided with redress, including all the support they need.


The new more comprehensive plan of action for preventing or countering violent extremism is a welcome – and urgently needed - shift away from a “security-only” approach.  It gives new impetus to address conditions conducive to terrorism, and the human rights dimensions of this issue, as set out in Pillars I and IV of the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

However, the Secretary-General's words of caution must remain with us throughout: sweeping definitions of “terrorism” and “violent extremism” that encroach on human rights are destructive to our ultimate purpose.  The broadening of these notions beyond “violent” extremism to merely “extremism” is potentially destructive. 

To be sustainably effective, political opponents or critics of governmental action cannot automatically be considered “violent extremists”.  Words are not the same as action..  We confuse and conflate those at our peril.   And at the peril of those across the world whom we are here to serve - to whom we owe our very best efforts to counter and prevent violent behaviour first and foremost, including those whose acts of violence are perpetrated under guise of extremist beliefs. 

In this, we must develop a deep commitment to the contribution that dissent makes to human progress.  No breakthrough in art or science, in literature or music, in human discovery or innovation came from those who narrowly tracked only to the lines of dominant thought.  For breakthrough solutions in the interests of sustainable development and against violent extremism, dissent, debate, discussion and disagreement are assets.  Which is why this panel today is so welcome.

I wish you a fruitful discussion.