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Addressing terrorist narratives through preventive strategies




Budapest, 7-8 November 2019


“Addressing terrorist narratives through preventive strategies”


Statement by Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


I thank the Government of Hungary and UN Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism Voronkov for hosting this important conference. Our office greatly appreciates the focus on holistic responses, risk mitigation, and prevention.

Wherever they occur, acts of terrorism have a serious impact on the enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. They destroy lives, families and communities.

We have witnessed the defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The 2018 Global Terrorist Index reports a decline in the number of deaths from terrorism. Yet, the threat of a resurgence of ideologically motivated terrorist violence in Europe remains.

Since we are here to discuss preventive strategies to tackle the terrorist threat, I would like to address two issues: first, the importance of, and challenges related to, the prevention of hate speech, incitement to violence, and terrorist recruitment, both online and offline; and, second, that, in order to be successful in prevention, human rights must be the basis of all counter-terrorism efforts; without it, terrorist narratives are more likely to thrive.

Let's start with hate speech and incitement to violence. The term hate speech is not defined in international law. The UN Secretary General, conscious of the increasing manifestations of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, as well as the exploitation of online platforms by extremist groups to disseminate bigotry, launched a UN Strategy and Plan of Action against hate speech, to enhance UN efforts to support States in addressing the phenomenon in a manner consistent with human rights. He appointed UN Under-Secretary-General Adama Dieng, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, as Focal Point for the UN Strategy and Plan of Action against hate speech.

The prohibition of incitement to violence is enshrined in article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It states explicitly that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” This shows that efforts to counter terrorism and to uphold human rights are mutually reinforcing and complementary.

The Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism describes the Internet as a double-edged sword: on the one hand a platform used for recruitment purposes by violent extremist groups, but, on the other hand, also a tool to challenge the radical narratives propagated by such groups.

Moving to big data, the use of databases and information exchange is paramount to prevent terrorism. At the same time, the collection and sharing of data raises important considerations for the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and protection against discrimination. States as well as information- and communication technology providers have the capacity can only intercept data and monitor online activity, but also censor expression, including by blocking access to information and moderating online content.

Multi-stakeholder initiatives exist that bring together governments, international organizations, the private sector, and civil society to properly regulate online content. The private sector obviously has a key role to play -- and I look forward to hearing from my colleague on the panel from Facebook about removing content that amounts to incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred, while, at the same time, allowing for free and open debate -- all of this in compliance with human rights. 

This is a tall order: efforts to counter terrorist narratives must ensure respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It is essential if we are to be effective in our efforts to defeat terrorism: counter narratives in particular, but also counter-terrorism strategies in general, will only be effective if they address also the conditions conducive to the problem, and they will only be successful if they have a strong and legitimate basis.

Unfortunately, around the world, overly broad anti-terrorism laws have been used to repress and limit legitimate political dissent, independent media and human rights defenders. Yet, civil society can potentially play an extremely valuable role in working with governments to counter terrorist narratives. But this requires an enabling environment for civil society to operate without excessive restrictions or administrative burdens and with full respect for freedom of expression and association.

The second issue I would like to highlight is that terrorist narratives thrive in fertile soil. While there is no clear-cut pathway towards terrorism or violent extremism, studies show that poor governance, corruption and rule of law deficits can contribute to creating the conditions in which violent extremism and terrorism take root.[1] Research has also shown that security-driven responses that do not respect human rights backfire, dramatically, by further fuelling grievances that facilitate recruitment by terrorist groups.[2]

Preventing and resolving conflict and promoting the rule of law and social and economic progress are, therefore, the first line of defence against terrorism and violent extremism.[3] A holistic approach to the conditions contributing to the emergence of violent extremism is much needed to ensure that responses to terrorism are effective.

An inclusive approach to prevention draws from the experiences of a wide range of stakeholders, including youth, women and civil society organisations. It addresses inequality and exclusion by leaving no one behind. This helps to prevent societies from descending into crisis. Conversely, excluding certain segments of society from participating in political processes or restricting their access to opportunities is likely to heighten a sense of grievance. So does the stigmatization of entire communities like Muslims or migrants.

Communities experiencing a sense of disenfranchisement and marginalization are vulnerable to violent extremism. To address this vulnerability, States must ensure the substantive and equal participation of all groups in society, in all aspects of political and public life, which is key to creating a sense of belonging. And, we know from research that the search for a "sense of belonging" is one of the factors motivating young people to join terrorist groups.  

Enhancing access to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by and for everyone, on an equal basis, is vital. That access is the lifeline by which individuals, communities and societies can be immunized against the rhetoric of violent extremism and by which we can successfully counter terrorist narratives.

Upon this strong platform, we can build successful strategies and tactics that combat hate speech, and incitement to violence and hostility. We can use the digital space to promote a different and positive vision that engages all of our society.

Quoting the UN Secretary-General: "The creation of open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies, based on the full respect of human rights and with economic opportunities for all, represents the most tangible and meaningful alternative to violent extremism.’[4]

I would like to close with a reference to the UN publication "Guidance to States on human-rights compliant responses to the threat posed by foreign fighters" of which I brought a few copies and which can also be downloaded from the internet.[5]  Thank you.



[1] “Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict”, UN University.

[2] UNDP, “Journey to Extremism in Africa,” https://journey-to-extremism.undp.org/content/downloads/UNDP-JourneyToExtremism-report-2017-english.pdf.

[3] UN SG opening remarks at the High-Level Conference on Counter-terrorism, New York, 28 June 2018. See also A/HRC/33/29, paras 14-15.

[4] http://journey-to-extremism.undp.org/content/downloads/UNDP-JourneyToExtremism-report-2017-english.pdf

[5] https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Human-Rights-Responses-to-Foreign-Fighters-web-final.pdf