Peacekeeping is one of the cornerstones of the United Nations and was, is and will be an essential tool for creating lasting peace in war-torn societies. The international system has changed in many ways since the first deployment of peacekeepers in 1948; new actors and challenges have emerged and mandates have evolved. The 21st Century brings enormous challenges to the international community’s peace and security – and peacekeeping will have to address many of these challenges. This series, culminating on International Day of UN Peacekeepers, 29 May, will bring innovative analysis and offer solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing peacekeeping today.
The UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, issued in January 2016, called for a comprehensive response to a growing threat. As a result the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), like all other UN agencies, will be required to consider how it can contribute to a UN response in this area. As we celebrate the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, it is important also to celebrate how they can make a difference to new global challenges.
In deliberating its relevance for preventing violent extremism, DPKO will be confronted with a series of general and specific dilemmas. There is a growing number of new organisations dedicated specifically to preventing violent extremism from a variety of perspectives (including training, funding and capacity building); while many existing organisations are also expanding their coverage. These all face a series of general dilemmas.
First, there is no consensus on a definition of violent extremism. For some, violent extremism is about a process, of turning radical ideas into violent action. For others it is about an outcome, and is aimed at achieving political, ideological or religious goals.
It follows, second; that neither is there consensus about how to prevent violent extremism. A distinction is sometimes drawn between countering violent extremism (CVE) which is a subset of counterterrorism and may include kinetic responses, and preventing violent extremism (PVE) which is focused more on developing local community resilience.
Third, and especially for PVE, programming is challenging. How do you identify communities at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism? Should we invest in PVE-relevant initiatives (education, women’s empowerment and job creation) or PVE-specific initiatives (counter-narratives, critical thinking and religious doctrine)? And how do you measure impact? A related and serious obstacle for programming is the lack of a natural source of funding for preventing violent extremism.
A specific dilemma is to discern the overlaps between work that peacekeepers are currently engaged in, and the ambition to prevent violent extremism. Certainly peacekeepers and their operations may be directly threatened by violent extremism, but that does not mean it is their job to prevent it. Clearly there can be direct links between a lack of peace and violent extremism, either as a cause or consequence, but there are also plenty of examples where the Venn diagram does not overlap. Many of the communities where DPKO is working may be at risk of violent extremism, but at the same time violent extremism may also emerge in otherwise peaceful and even prosperous communities where DPKO is not working.
The best way that DPKO and peacekeepers generally can contribute to efforts to prevent violent extremism is to focus on their core competencies and identify where these can add value. Developing national capacity for the rule of law, for example, is a core capacity for DPKO that should constrain the environment in which violent extremism may flourish, and may also inform the development of national PVE capacity – a significant focus for the UN Action Plan.
There will also be lessons to learn from the re-integration of ex-combatants for the re-integration of violent extremists, even where the individuals are not the same. Peacekeepers have strong experience in building confidence with local communities, promoting gender equality and engaging civil society – all of which are necessary for PVE to become effective. Perhaps most importantly, DPKO and peacekeepers can join other UN agencies in emphasising human rights and the need to do no harm as fundamental underpinnings for preventing violent extremism.
This post ends a vibrant mini-series focusing on various key aspects of contemporary peacekeeping. The series should be commended for being innovative, forward-looking and solutions-oriented. These are exactly the qualities required to ensure that DPKO can engage constructively and effectively with international efforts to prevent the growing global threat of violent extremism.