By Rosalie Fransen
Since the inception of the global countering and preventing violent extremism (C/PVE) agenda, states have abused it to pursue their own political and security interests, at the expense of human rights. At WASL, we have seen first-hand how counterterrorism legislation has been used to target civil society actors and delegitimize the work of women peacebuilders and women human rights defenders. One of WASL’s own members, grassroots activist and peacebuilder Waheed Para, has been detained since August 2019 by the Indian government on alleged terrorism charges. Other WASL members have reported issues with opening bank accounts, delays in financial transactions, and oppressive administrative requirements as a result of counterterrorism policies.
The crisis in Afghanistan forced us to reckon with the failures of the C/PVE agenda, as well as with the lack of will of the international community to protect the human rights of the women peacebuilders who have been asked to support it. What is the meaning of counterterrorism when the world has collectively abandoned a country and its people to be governed by a terrorist organization? How can states speak of gender-sensitive P/CVE or of the importance of women, peace, and security, when they have left Afghan women to their fate? These questions have hung over recent ICAN and WASL discussions as we try to support Afghan women peacebuilders and our requests for help are faced with silence from all but a few international counterparts.
To engage in a conversation on these questions and more, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, joined the weekly WASL call on September 23, 2021. During her mandate, the Special Rapporteur has repeatedly sounded the alarm bell on states using counterterrorism and C/PVE measures to justify widespread human rights abuses. She has pointed among other things to the impact of counter-terrorism on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the link between securitization, counterterrorism and shrinking civic space, and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes in C/PVE programmes.
The crisis in Afghanistan forced us to reckon with the failures of the C/PVE agenda, as well as with the lack of will of the international community to protect the human rights of the women peacebuilders who have been asked to support it.
In her remarks, the Special Rapporteur reiterated findings from her reports on the absence of human rights within the counterterrorism and P/CVE agendas. She underscored that the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes terrorism continues to enable States to define terrorism in ways that directly target and impact civil society, journalists, dissenters, human rights defenders, ethnic and religious minorities and others. She noted that at the international level, there remains a lack of human rights oversight, noting that the mandate of Special Rapporteurs as unpaid, independent experts with little institutional support limits the scope of work. She noted that this space is also “gender light” and, through its permissiveness, successfully defends itself from efforts to mainstream gender.
“The P/CVE agenda has commodified women for 20 years. Security spaces do not protect women’s rights. This is not a marginal problem, this is a DNA problem, it is built into the structure. Which suggests to me that as feminists we have an obligation to look at the [P/CVE] space and ask what we are doing in it.”
The P/CVE agenda has commodified women for 20 years. Security spaces do not protect women’s rights.
WASL member Antelak Al-Mutawakel from Yemen echoed this sentiment, noting that the lack of a clear definition of terrorism means that for the West, fighting terrorism is just another way to colonize and occupy non-Western countries. Often it seems as though “fighting terrorism” is just a way to suppress Islamic culture. WASL member Nicoline Nwenushi Tumasang Wazeh from Cameroon described how anti-terrorism law has been used to designate civilian Anglophone protestors as terrorists and compared them to Boko Haram, further exacerbating the crisis.
Yet, despite the misuse of the global P/CVE agenda, terrorism and violent extremism remain real issues that WASL members are confronted with at the local level to which they cannot turn a blind eye. In past weekly calls, we have seen how women peacebuilders have mobilized to respond: they use trauma-informed approaches to help people disengage from violent extremist groups, fill health and safety vacuums left by states during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent capture by extremist groups, coach parents and teachers to detect early warning signs of radicalization among youth, and provide women with alternative sources of livelihood so they can go from sewing suicide jackets to sewing facemasks. The Special Rapporteur concurred that there remains a pressing need for these localized solutions:
“The actual counterterrorism work is about servicing communities, dealing with the fundamental needs of communities, protecting their socioeconomic rights. The international community does not want to do the hard, unsexy work of sustaining peace. There are no quick fixes for sustained, systemic violence.”
There are no quick fixes for sustained, systemic violence.
There exists a significant disconnect between localized work by grassroots civil society and peacebuilding organizations and practitioners, who serve the people in their communities, and the P/CVE discussions at the national and multilateral level, which serve state, authoritarian and security interests. WASL member Amina Rasul from the Philippines said that she does not see much movement in reducing the gap between her reality and that of the policies voiced by UN agencies: “we find that international programs and recommendations of C/PVE are sort of in the air. When you try to bring it down to the community level there is a such a huge gap between the intent of a national action plan and what is doable at the community level.”
WASL member Bushra Qadeem Hyder from Pakistan, a school principal who has integrated a comprehensive peace education curriculum in her school to respond to growing radicalization of her students into jihadism, expressed the fear and frustration that comes with watching the international community’s response – or lack thereof – to the problem of terrorism:
“If the government wants it, if the international agencies want it, all the work that has been done by powerful and outspoken women will go down the drain. Does that mean that even after 20 or 50 years we will be in the same place we are now? The only solution I see is to work on the future of my students and help them to understand the difference between politics and religion.”
The only solution I see is to work on the future of my students and help them to understand the difference between politics and religion.
The disconnect between the local and the global extends to the language we use. The framing of “P/CVE” is not always productive in local work, particularly when trying to build trust with communities. ICAN CEO Sanam Naraghi Anderlini described how at ICAN, we frame our work not as “countering” or “preventing,” but as devising positive, peaceful solutions to extremisms. Although the problem of extremisms isn’t going away, if the global C/PVE architecture and vocabulary is fundamentally flawed, we will need to create our own frameworks to tackle it. Here, the language of building peace is a useful tool.
Part of the reckoning brought on by the Afghanistan crisis is a loss of trust in those Western countries who we, as the peacebuilding and women, peace, and security community, have traditionally considered to be our key allies. The Special Rapporteur remarked that these countries have long been responsible for producing the conditions of conflict in Afghanistan, through 20 years of drone strikes and human rights violations.
Between the failures of the current P/CVE architecture and the apathy and lack of accountability of those we presumed to be allies, WASL has an opportunity to rethink its collective approach as a global alliance. The central question – as resonant and unanswerable in this conversation as it has been in our heads for the past month – is what do we do now?