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When the UN Addresses The 'Conditions Conducive to Terrorism,' What Happens to Human Rights?

Professor Cora True-Frost, Syracuse University College of Law, solves the question: What is the effect on international human rights law of international-level engagement with CVE?

UN Security Council, 2018


As terrorist threats continue, the United Nations grapples with the question of what measures governments should adopt to enhance security. This Article is the first to analyze the UN’s involvement in “countering violent extremism programs” (CVE) from a legal academic perspective. Specifically, this Article illuminates a critical question: What is the effect on international human rights law of international-level engagement with CVE?

Preventing or countering violent extremism programs in the United Kingdom force teachers to report signs that students are “vulnerable to radicalization.” In other countries, prosecutions use broad definitions of incitement, raising concerns about freedom of expression, association, and due process. National CVE programs create unique human rights concerns, including criticisms that: violent extremism is a vague term, leading to incomprehensible criteria; Muslims are targeted, and their beliefs are penalized and stigmatized; free speech is suppressed; and extremist tendencies are not reliably identified. Worse, some argue that when social services gather information, they discourage those in need from seeking benefits. Despite these concerns, the UN Secretary-General embraced CVE policies, adopting a “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” in December 2015. Just one month later, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on nations to avoid sacrificing security for human rights. Embracing CVE will both open and foreclose opportunities to advance international human rights law at the international level. The UN Charter obliges the UN to uphold and promote human rights, including freedom of expression and association. This obligation still holds when the international organization weighs those rights against international and domestic terrorism. By embracing CVE programs, the UN has both limited and expanded its capacity to promote and develop human rights norms. On the one hand, the UN may have curtailed its ability to leverage social stigma against states that violate human rights norms through their CVE programs. This Article addresses an additional concern: The Secretary-General’s call for National CVE Action Plans may generate a drive towards uniformity among States, creating a race to the bottom in human rights standards, as well as redirecting important state resources from social services to security. On the other hand, this Article also analyzes some limited ways that the UN’s position on CVE programs may promote human-rights respecting outcomes. This is because the UN’s agenda will now offer multiple opportunities for transnational advocacy networks, and other stakeholders to contest CVE programs not only nationally, but also at the international level and through programs within the UN.

This Article fills a gap in existing international law/international relations approaches to norm development by showing how international organizations can stifle rather than merely promote human rights norms at the international level. Given recent news reports that the U.S. President Donald Trump plans to rename CVE programs “Countering Islamic Extremism,” specifically targeting Muslim groups, this Article provides timely insight into some concerns of President Trump’s proposed program. If the United States changes its programs to “Combating Islamic Extremism,” the existing international model of CVE programs would arguably represent a higher baseline than that program, providing human rights advocates leverage in the United States.


This Article is the first to focus on the preliminary effects of the United Nations’ (UN’s) coordinated embrace of countering violent extremism (CVE) programs on security and human rights at the international level. Since 2014, a relatively new and concerted focus on prevention of “violent extremism” has been central to the UN’s anti-terror efforts. International law scholars have described the “regulatory” turn in international law,1 and engaged many of the normative concerns raised by the impacts of internationally coordinated counterterrorism efforts on human rights law.2 This Article fills a gap in this literature by analyzing the international, transnational, and correspondingly national move to employing “softer” programs to “prevent” radicalization.

As the international community once again moves beyond the dichotomy of criminal law and armed conflict by endorsing preventive means of countering extremism,3 its resulting quasiregulatory frameworks trigger implications for human rights law and security. This analysis finds that the UN’s endorsement of CVE programs has both opened and foreclosed opportunities to advance international human rights law and security at the national and international levels.(4)

Keep reading and access the full article here.

C. Cora True-Frost is an Associate Professor, Syracuse University College of Law.


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