Last week, the White House sponsored an international summit on strategies to counter violent extremism (CVE), focusing on groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Among the strategies suggested to mitigate radicalization, President Obama listed an increased emphasis on human rights and democracy: “That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups.”
Repression by an authoritarian regime, political disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses are considered to be among the factors that lead individuals to terrorism, rather than choosing peaceful means to protest. As the president said last Thursday, “When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent, or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence… Terrorist groups claim that change can only come through violence. And if peaceful change is impossible, that plays into extremist propaganda.”
At the CVE summit, President Obama also specifically emphasized women’s rights, calling on participating countries to commit to “expanding education, including for girls. Expanding opportunity, including for women. Nations will not truly succeed without the contributions of their women.” A critical component of investing in human rights is investing in women’s rights. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and lead author of the UN secretary-general’s Global Study on Women, Peace, and Security Radhika Coomaraswamy wrote recently in Foreign Policy that “empowered women are the foundation of resilient and stable communities—communities that can stand firm against radicalization.” The UN Security Council echoed this sentiment in resolution 2178 in September 2014, when for the first time the Council referenced the need to empower women in order to halt the spread of violent extremism.
The United States can support women and girls’ rights—and therefore mitigate the factors that often lead to radicalization—by improving girls’ educational opportunities abroad, along with supporting the rights of women and girls more broadly. Ensuring that girls have access to quality education not only improves their ability to flourish and improve their employment opportunities for their own future, but also increases the chances that their children down the road will grow up in healthy, stable homes and receive education themselves. In turn, this will generate economic growth and decrease poverty, and thus limit the potential for extremism to thrive in their communities.
Furthermore, research suggests that improving the status of women and involving them in peace negotiations, peacekeeping, and postconflict reconstruction creates greater stability, more sustainable peace agreements, fewer relapses into conflict, and therefore more lasting peace. By reducing conflict and creating greater prosperity, involving women in core peace and security matters—and in the mainstream economy—has the potential to reduce conflict, undercutting the insecurity, poverty, and desperate circumstances in which extremism flourishes.
Increasing the emphasis on human rights—including women’s rights—in U.S. foreign policy is critical for national security. However, as Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin J. Rhodes indicated in a recent New York Times article, the White House sometimes faces a disconnect between promoting human rights and partnering with human rights violators in the struggle to combat violent extremism. In the same article, Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, noted, “There is a very profound conceptual disagreement about whether the best way to counter violent extremism is through human rights and civil society or through an iron fist.” President of the advocacy group Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino, pointed out that the very composition of the White House summit underscored the inconsistency between the rhetoric and reality: “We’re sitting in that room with representatives of governments that are part of the problem.”
Another challenge is that the United States runs the risk of being accused of exporting “Western feminism” in overtly linking women’s rights to the fight against violent extremism. However, it cannot hope to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda without supporting women’s rights. By supporting local women’s rights efforts that have both legitimacy and on-the-ground knowledge, the United States can advance the rights of women and girls from the bottom up, which will not only help combat extremism, but also support more democratic, just societies.