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Violent extremism: Prevention programmes should not violate human rights – UN expert

04 March 2020

GENEVA (4 March 2020) – Many violent extremism prevention programmes worldwide are directly contributing to human rights violations and may even foster radicalization instead of preventing it, warned a UN expert in her latest report to the Human Rights Council.

“Prevention is an important and necessary tool but it will only be effective when it is practised in a way that protects and affirms rights,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

Her report examines the national, regional and global policies of preventing and countering violent extremism. While Ní Aoláin recognizes the global challenges presented by terrorism and the costs borne by individuals and communities as a result, she concludes that “current approaches to prevent it lack a consistent rule of law or human rights grounding”.

Her report finds that religious groups, minorities and civil society actors in particular are victims of rights violations and are targeted under the guise of countering “extremism”. She warns that “large-scale violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are being enabled by “deradicalization” policies and practice.” The UN expert finds a persistent lack of meaningful consultation with the communities targeted by these prevention measures.

“These practices produce alienation and mistrust in the communities we need most to address the global challenges of extremist violence,” she said.

Her report pays particular attention to the lack of robust scientific data underpinning many of the claims made by States and international institutions to justify their prevention practices. It severely criticizes these programmes for lacking any kind of systematic and empirically grounded evaluation process, including assessing their human rights impact.

She is deeply concerned that in addition to deficits at national level, such deficits are also found in programmes supported by UN entities. “The United Nations counter-terrorism architecture must do better in protecting human rights and the rule of law when they support and engage with national programmes,” she said.

In addition, the Special Rapporteur expressed serious concerns about the absence of precise legal definitions of extremism and violent extremism in national legislations and the widespread abuses of human rights that it entails. She found that “in many countries definitions of extremism extend to rights that are directly and absolutely protected by international law”. 

Finally, Ní Aoláin denounced the commodification of women and girls in some States policies aimed at countering violent extremism. She says that “ethical shortcuts and misidentification of preventing programmes as women’s empowerment sets back women’s rights and equality rather than advancing it”.


Ms Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin (Ireland), the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, took up her functions on 1 August 2017. She is a University Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota; holder of the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society; and faculty director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is concurrently a Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is co-founder and associate director of the Institute
The Special Rapporteurs 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.

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