On Wednesday, September 30, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, in cooperation with Human Rights First, organized an experts’ workshop in New York on human rights and countering violent extremism. Titled “Stop Extremism, Support Human Rights,” the workshop was held on the sidelines of the UN summit on violent extremism, convened at the UN headquarters in New York on September 29. The workshop highlighted how the serious, systematic infringement of individual and collective rights creates or fosters a socio-political climate conducive to the emergence of political and religious extremism and terrorism, a turn to acts of violence and individual and collective retribution, and receptiveness to terrorist groups.
Thirty-nine experts participated in the workshop, coming from the UN, the US State Department, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Kenya, Iraq, Sudan, Morocco, US, UK, and Ireland. The workshop was inaugurated by Zach Silverstein, the deputy director of Human Rights First; Steven Feldstein, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights; and Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the CIHRS. In his speech, Hassan linked the failure of the war on terrorism in the 14 years since the 9/11 attacks to the fact that counterterrorism strategies disregard basic political, economic, social, and religious factors, including serious infringements of human rights that give rise to or promote terrorism. Instead, they focus on narrow security and military approaches of limited efficacy, despite several UN resolutions and a White House summit in February that emphasized the importance of addressing the fundamental roots of terrorism. Hassan said that he feared that the UN summit on violent extremism, held the day before and attended by Hassan, would be another lost opportunity on the road of the same failures. Several papers prepared by researchers and rights advocates for the workshop discussed the relationship between the erosion of human rights and growing violent extremism and terrorism in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Gulf states, and Kenya. The CIHRS will issue a book in Arabic and English that includes these papers, as well as a detailed report on the proceedings and recommendations of the workshop.
The workshop concluded with a panel dedicated to the primary conclusions of the proceedings, moderated by Michael Posner, former US assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights and currently a lecturer at New York University. The panel featured Hanny Megally, the former chief of the Asia, Pacific, Middle East and North Africa Branch at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Neil Hicks, the director of human rights promotion at Human Rights First; and Bahey eldin Hassan. Hassan summarized the ten conclusions drawn from the workshop, the most significant being:
- Grave human rights violations are part of the problem of terrorism in the Arab world. Respecting and promoting human rights is a basic step toward overcoming the problem, particularly the rights of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and the Bedouin in Egypt.
- The extremist discourse of governmental religious institutions is one of the causes of growing terrorism in the Arab world; ensuring the independence and non-politicization of these institutions is a necessary step to address the problem.
- States exporting arms to other states combating terrorism must ensure that these arms are not used to suppress peoples, individuals, and groups involved in peaceful opposition. This illegitimate suppression strengthens the tendency to extremism, violence, and acts of retribution, while creating an environment that allows terrorist organizations to more easily recruit supporters and fighters.
- The collapse of the moral stature of the Arab League and in turn its inability to play a positive role in brokering resolutions to armed conflicts between member states or in civil wars is a primary cause of the growth of terrorism and its extension. Since it enjoys greater credibility among all Arab and non-Arab states and parties, the UN must fill this gap by playing an active, more effective role. In this context, the UN should consider asserting more direct responsibility over countries on the verge of collapse (such as Syria and Yemen), following the model previously used in the case of Namibia and other countries. This may prevent the total collapse of these states and disintegration into several failed statelets that may prove fertile ground for terrorist groups. It could also prevent suffering for the peoples of these states and creation of refugees, equip these states for self-governance, and ameliorate the outcome of decades of government persecution, massacres, and aerial and artillery bombings, as well as state corruption and the failure to manage ethnic and religious diversity.
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