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Austria: Efforts to tackle extremism must balance root causes and security measures


06 July 2018

GENEVA/VIENNA (6 July 2018) – Austria must address the root causes of violent extremism and radicalisation to stop its nationals and residents travelling abroad to fight in conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, says a group of UN experts.

“Government efforts to strengthen national security and the ability of law enforcement agencies to intercept individuals attempting to join and fight with groups properly designated as ‘terrorists’ are understandable and necessary. However, if excessively focused on punishment, these efforts can have the effect of increasing radicalisation and extremism,” said Gabor Rona, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Mercenaries, in a statement at the end of a nine-day visit to the country.

“Addressing the root causes of radicalisation and violent extremism, which include a myriad of social and economic factors, can lead to more effective long-term solutions,” he emphasized.

Austria has had one of highest per capita rates in the European Union of foreign fighters travelling to major conflict zones, peaking between 2014 and 2015. An estimated 317 individuals tried to go to Syria and Iraq to join groups such as Da’esh and Al-Nusra. Around 60 were intercepted attempting to travel there, many of whom were tried and convicted under anti-terrorism laws. About 93 are known to have returned from the conflict zones, but there are no definitive statistics on numbers for the number killed.

These numbers have since decreased, believed to be the result of Government initiatives and the decrease in military power of groups such as Da’esh.

There is no standard profile for Austrians who travel abroad to fight. Some of the main factors include ideology, religious conviction, search for identity and a sense of belonging, economic and financial gain, and adventure.

“Financial gain is of particular interest to our mandate which includes the coverage of ‘mercenary-like activities’. With the amount of funding that goes into groups such as Da’esh, there is almost always an incentive for enrichment among foreign fighters,” said Saeed Mokbil, a member of the Working Group.

“In one case an individual’s family was promised a payment of 4,000 euros for going to Syria. Recruits were promised salaries in excess of those paid to local fighters and, in some cases, even houses and cars. Often, it has been a combination of financial and other factors that has prompted foreign fighters to go to Syria,” he added.

Though most fighters have been men, women have also travelled, mainly to join husbands or friends. Young women and girls have also made their way to conflict zones to become brides of Da’esh or Al Nusra members. Sometimes entire families, including children, have travelled together.

“Many of the individuals who became radicalised were from a migration background and disadvantaged communities, and had experienced racism, religious discrimination, poverty, lack of opportunity, social and societal rejection and mental health issues,” the UN experts said.

“Government policies aimed at combatting what it refers to as “political Islam” also raised serious concerns as this may be mis-used to breed further discrimination and violations of human rights to freedom of religion, expression, association and political activities. Backlash against such policies may further alienate those susceptible to radicalisation,” said Mr. Rona.

“I’m concerned about such policies, as some are specifically aimed at migrants, foreigners and members of the Muslim communities. Although all religions have political elements, it appears only Islam is singled out. While it is right to criticize criminal activities and extremist organizations that invoke Islam such as Da’esh, the denial of the right to engage in political activity in the name of Islam is also dangerous,” he added.

Measures to enhance integration also raised concerns. Under one policy, migrants and foreigners who failed to cooperate with integration programmes may be denied social benefits.

The experts made clear that, in spite of the many positive facets of initiatives aimed at improving social cohesion and reducing radicalisation and violent extremism, some of the measures, if not implemented with due respect to non-discriminatory human rights standards, could lead to further marginalization and radicalisation.

“Instead of punitive security measures, preventive and more socially orientated efforts to address the root causes of the problem should be applied,” the experts stressed.

“We welcome the drafting of a national strategy on deradicalization and prevention of violent extremism, and urge the authorities to finalize the adoption of this plan, ensuring the inclusion of valuable contributions from the community and NGOs,” the delegation said.

The experts also assessed the regulation of private military and security companies in Austria, and commend the existence of constitutional doctrine prohibiting outsourcing of “core governmental functions.” This would preclude operations of a private military nature or the operation of detention or prison facilities by private companies. They noted that a private security company was operating in a migrant detention centre in Vordernberg, providing administrative support and social, medical, and psychological services to detainees. The model is a positive one, differentiating coercive functions of prison authorities from others that benefit detainees. 

However, the Working Group warns against using this model as a platform for expansion of private security operations into coercive roles, and against devolution of ultimate state responsibility for all conditions and treatment, whether involving state or contracted persons.

The delegation visited Vienna, Lower Austria and Styria and met State officials, representatives of civil society organizations, detainees and inmates at Garsten Prison and the immigration detention centre at Vordernberg.

The Working Group will present its findings and recommendations in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2019.


The Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the rights of peoples to self-determination, was established in July 2005 by the then Commission on Human Rights. Its mandate was further extended by the Human Rights Council in 2008. The Group is comprised of five independent expert members from various regions of the world. The Chairperson-Rapporteur is Mr. Gabor Rona (United States of America). Other members are Mr. Saeed Mokbil (Yemen) Ms Lilian Bobea (Dominican Republic), Mr. Chris Kwaja (Nigeria), and Ms Jelena Aparac (Croatia).

The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Austria

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