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Today, the Kenyan government will host a regional conference on “countering violent extremism” – the latest in several conferences held around the world after a February 2015 White House Summit that organizers said sought to identify ways to prevent terrorist recruitment and infiltration.

CVE is the latest acronym for policymakers looking for a solution to the multiple failings in the “global war on terror.” Given the litany of brutality and abuses that has defined that effort, Nairobi participants should closely heed what the nations that met in Washington concluded.

Failure to investigate and ensure accountability for security force abuses or crushing space for dissenting views only alienates affected communities and may provide a recruiting windfall for militant groups.
Maria Burnett

Senior Researcher

Ministers from more than 60 countries who gathered for the Washington D.C. summit recognized that “intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement alone will not solve – and when misused can in fact exacerbate – the problem of violent extremism.” They further highlighted that “measures aimed at addressing the terrorist threat, should be developed and implemented in full compliance with international law, in particular international human rights law.”

In East Africa, as in other regions of the world, efforts to deter or respond to attacks have often been accompanied by serious abuses by the security forces, which go unpunished. In Kenya, after the horrendous attacks along the coast in mid-2014 where gunmen killed at least 87 people, security forces arrested, detained and beat hundreds of people during law enforcement operations. Without real investigations, prosecutors ultimately dropped all charges against suspected militants for lack of evidence, leaving the communities vulnerable to further attacks.

In Somalia, the national intelligence agency, NISA, routinely conducts mass security sweeps following attacks, despite having no legal mandate to arrest or detain suspects. Alleged Al-Shabaab suspects have been sentenced to death and executed after speedy trials that lacked basic protections such as presenting a defense.

In Uganda in 2008, an anti-terrorism unit tortured many young Muslim men. Since then, there have been no investigations in the abuses, even in cases in which evidence indicates that suspects were killed in custody during brutal interrogations. In recent years, Ethiopian police and security services harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily have arrested hundreds of Muslims protesting government interference in religious affairs. Some protest leaders faced terrorism charges and said they had been mistreated in custody.  

Countries have also used anti-terrorism laws to crack down on lawful independent groups, undermining the potential for productive dialogue between law enforcement and communities, as well as limiting the space to express divergent views. In April, Kenyan authorities placed two human rights groups, MUHURI and Haki Africa, on an official list of alleged supporters of terrorism. The groups had raised allegations that security agencies engaged in extrajudicial killings of Muslim clerics and alleged terrorism suspects. The government froze bank accounts of both groups without notice and they remain frozen despite a recent court ruling stating that the groups have no terrorism links.

In Ethiopia, the overly broad provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation have been used to prosecute journalists and bloggers. Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers, who wrote about current events, have now been in detention for over a year. Their trial has been adjourned 29 times with little in the way of credible evidence presented against them.

Conference participants in Nairobi should learn from the mistakes of other countries in countering violent extremism. Failure to investigate and ensure accountability for security force abuses or crushing space for dissenting views only alienates affected communities and may provide a recruiting windfall for militant groups. 

Maria Burnett is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. on Twitter at @MariaHRWAfrica

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