Upholding Human Rights as a Key to Preventing Violent Extremism

Last month, I participated in the Central and South Asia Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) hosted by the Republic of Kazakhstan in Astana.  The conference was one of the many worldwide follow-up meetings to the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which outlined an ambitious agenda to address the root causes and drivers of radicalization and ideologies that promote violence.  

During the conference, the United States delegation and some of the other participating countries and organizations discussed ways to counter violent extremism within the framework of good governance and the rule of law, especially through partnerships with civil society.  

One focal point of our discussion was the misuse of the internet to spread extremist messaging and recruitment. As I made clear to my counterparts in Astana, the United States doesn’t believe that censorship of speech that falls short of incitement to imminent violence or material support for terrorism presents a viable solution to an admittedly challenging problem. While violent extremists’ use of the internet, including social media, should be addressed using all lawfully available means, engagement, rather than censorship, needs to guide our response. 

That’s because in the marketplace of ideas, the free exchange of information is an essential antidote to the appeal of violent extremist ideologies. When governments suppress peaceful and legitimate expression, to include ideas we find abhorrent, we simply drive extremist voices underground, where they are harder to track and challenge. Conspiracy theories and misinformation thrive in dark places; our goal should be to shed light.  

Another topic of discussion in Astana was that while there’s much we still don’t know about the process of radicalization, one thing we do know is that experiences of injustice -- such as discrimination, corruption, and abuses by government authorities or security forces -- are a key driver of political violence.  At the Africa Regional CVE conference held in Nairobi, Kenya last month, a participant highlighted that 65 percent of Shabaab members interviewed by a think tank said they joined the group as a reaction to the aggressive and discriminatory actions of local security forces, as well as ethnic profiling, arbitrary detentions, and police corruption. That is a statistic with which countries around the world need to grapple as we craft policy to prevent radicalization.    

Simply put, populations that have access to transparent and non-corrupt governance, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms of expression tend to have fewer grievances, and more outlets to peacefully resolve those grievances that they do have. This makes them more resistant to the call of violent extremists. More broadly, when governments reduce the space for civil society to operate -- a trend that is regrettably spreading in virtually every region of the world today in parallel to the growth of groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh -- they are harming their own CVE efforts, as civil society actors are often those closest to populations vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.

In Astana, I closed my remarks by quoting recent comments made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during his own travels in Central Asia.  “Around the world,” Ban said, “the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness.  More human rights.  The road to a stable future is by strengthening the rule of law.  By fighting corruption.  By ensuring an independent judiciary.  By guaranteeing free media.  By building just societies.  By empowering citizens.”  

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. Curbing freedom of expression creates an illusion of stability in the short-run, but ultimately fosters a breeding ground for extreme ideologies. As governments around the world seek to prevent the threat of violent extremism, it’s essential that they grow, not curtail, operating space for civil society -- including youth, women, and religious groups -- so that these populations can speak their minds, organize among themselves, and bring their experiences to bear on creating more peaceful, tolerant, and democratic societies.

About the Author: Rob Berschinski serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) at the U.S. Department of State. He is responsible for DRL’s work in Europe and South and Central Asia.

For more information:



Patrick W.
Maryland, USA
July 19, 2015
American people have to Listen to Donald Trump should be a Humans Rights Violation. Thank God ! He will never be president, or anyone like him, because we would be at war with ever country in the world after his fist speech. I don't think we miss understand him, he just say's horrible things that we do understand. :) I can see why he keeps trying to make sense of what he says to people on the news. No one understands stupid ! LOL.....
Patrick W.
Maryland, USA
July 21, 2015
Dealing with depression from Human Right Violations would also help the people in these countries. This is a problem many people suffer from in all of our countries. It would be in all our best interest to start dealing with the people who suffer from mental disorders , by getting them the help they need. Our jails are full of them , which does not help any of us...
Young Man Sits on Stairs and Looks at His Smartphone
Posted by Rob Berschinski
July 16, 2015


Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more