President Obama Makes Case for Putting Human Rights at the Heart of Countering Extremism

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First welcomed President Obama’s speech today at the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE), in which he affirmed that the fight against violent extremism requires partnerships with governments that support human rights and strong, independent civil societies. The president’s remarks came following a letter issued by Human Rights First and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies urging the president to make clear that advancing human rights, accountability, and the rule of law must be at the heart of any sustainable and effective strategy to combat violent extremism. In addition, a group of retired military and law enforcement leaders from around the world urged President Obama to convey to U.S. global partners that the effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts is largely dependent on the extent to which a country’s security forces adhere to human rights standards.

“The president is dead right–government policies that violate rights fuel instability and create a climate in which violent extremism flourishes,”  said Elisa Massimino, who attended today’s Summit. “Governments that deny basic rights and freedoms to their people, turn a blind eye to police brutality and institutionalized discrimination, and allow corruption to stifle economic opportunity create fertile ground for violent extremism. Any government that purports to ally with the United States to counter violent extremism–including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain–must be upholding human rights and the rule of law in their own countries. When they fail to do so, they are enabling–not combating–extremist violence. And the Obama Administration should be using its leverage and influence to press these governments to respect the rights of all their citizens.”


Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to:

  • Design counterterrorism assistance programs to include significant support for rule-of-law institutions in partner countries, and human rights training for military and police forces;
  • Conduct comprehensive interagency reviews of policy toward U.S. counterterrorism partners whose human rights records at home are deeply problematic and who promote or give financial support to violent extremists abroad, in order to develop strategies to confront these problems;
  • Reform counterterrorism finance tools such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to ensure that governments do not use them as a justification for actions that crack down on legitimate civil society organizations and political expression; and
  • Expand the resources available to local civil society groups and other community-based stakeholders to counter violent extremism and develop programming designed and/or implemented by those local groups.

Many of the governments represented at the summit today have actively resisted calls by their citizens for inclusive and representative government. While President Obama today called on countries to “lift up voices of tolerance,”  the Saudi Arabian government has sentenced liberal Muslim blogger Raif Badawi to ten years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for encouraging peaceful, open debate about religion.


“The public lashing of advocates for non-violent religious dialogue is just one example of the type of extreme intolerance endorsed by governments that emboldens violent extremists to commit horrific crimes, such as the murder of satirists in Paris or attendees of a free speech event in Copenhagen,” noted Massimino.

In his speech today, the president rightly emphasized the importance of strong, independent civil societies in the fight against violent extremism. Governments represented at the Summit, including Russia and Egypt, regularly jail civil society activists and have imposed new restrictions and threatened even more destructive actions against civil society organizations. Repressive U.S. allies have cracked down on legitimate dissent in the name of counterterrorism, targeting and jailing human rights activists on terrorism charges. Repressing peaceful dissent is ultimately self-defeating as it is likely to fuel grievances that can result in violent extremism.

The president also emphasized the crucial need for governments to cut off funding flowing to terrorist organizations from their countries, but he failed to mention the negative contribution of hateful sectarian rhetoric from extremist preachers and religious institutions hosted by governments like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Religious leaders in these countries use their authority to spread antisemitism, hatred of Christians, and hatred of Muslims who do not adhere to their narrow restrictive interpretations of Islam. These teachings are often disseminated to Muslim communities around the world, sowing poisonous ideas that fuel violent extremism.


“The U.S. government should consistently condemn those nations that actively restrict public space, crack down on civil society, and support sectarian rhetoric,” added Massimino. “These actions by U.S. allies undermine the global effort to roll back violent extremism and should not be tolerated. The United States should focus on building counterterrorism partnerships to capitalize on allied resources, while fully enforcing existing human rights conditions on aid and directing assistance specifically to promote respect for human rights.”


For more information read Human Rights First’s blueprint, “How to Conduct Effective Counterterrorism that Reinforces Human Rights.”


Published on February 19, 2015


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