11 June 2020

75 for UN75: A Conversation on Rethinking Radicalization

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and as part of its 75th anniversary initiative (UN75), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is hosting the "75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation" series of online dialogues with academics, educators, researchers and students around the world, to discuss their priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global cooperation in managing global issues. On 1 June 2020 UNAI hosted a webinar on the theme “Rethinking Radicalization”, as part of this series.

The radicalization of youth and the promotion of violent extremism has been a concern of the United Nations for some years. In fact, issues related to these topics are addressed in Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions, which includes targets on combating cybercrime. In 2020, as the world combats the global COVID-19 pandemic and people spend more time online, extremist groups are taking advantage of the lockdown and intensifying efforts to spread hatred and radicalize youth through social media. In this context, the webinar brought together experts from the UN system and academia for a timely conversation on the role of higher education in combating radicalization and violent extremism online.

Izumi Nakamitsu, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, mentioned that one tremendously positive side of modern technology is that it has enabled the world to stay connected during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, around 300,000 suspicious websites have been created during this time and there has been an increase of over 600% in cyberattacks which target hospitals, health institutions and research facilities working on the coronavirus vaccine. Ms. Nakamitsu introduced the “Apps 4 Digital Peace” contest jointly launched by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and Cybersecurity Tech Accord. The contest, open for submissions until 30 July 2020, calls on young people to compete in creating technology-based solutions that would improve the security and stability of the online environment. Another UNODA initiative, Youth for Disarmament, also highlights the catalytic role that youth play in security and disarmament and empowers the young generation to become the ultimate force for change.

Mr. Masood Karimipour, Chief of Terrorism Prevention Branch, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, stressed that internet usage has nearly doubled in many countries since the beginning of the pandemic and radical movements have claimed the health crisis is a divine intervention to attract new followers and increase their membership. For countries to mitigate some of these challenges, they need to adopt inclusive plans of action. “The emphasis is on the word ‘inclusive’ as we have seen action plans being carried out exclusive of women, youth, ethnic and religious minorities and the marginalized,” he said. Mr. Karimipour also encouraged international collaboration in intelligence exchange, which will provide a more complete picture that allows countries to act effectively against violent extremism. “The Internet is a potential crime scene and it needs to be policed to prevent crimes from happening,” he noted. For example, Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) networks have been developed for different regions, most recently for Central Asia, Philippines and Maldives.

The insights of Ms. Samantha de Silva, Senior Technical Specialist at the World Bank, are based on the experience of countries that have had to combat radicalization such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Algeria and many others. She pointed out that “Just as drivers of conflicts are different in all these places, the drivers of radicalization are also very different,” and gave the example of  how poverty and ideology pushed youth to become radicalized in Afghanistan, while the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attacks were carried out by the educated middle class. She also highlighted that terms such as violence, extremism and radicalization need to more clearly defined, which will help in conducting more productive policy dialogue and research.

Mr. John Sanabria, Professor and Dean of the School of Public Safety, Ana G. Méndez University, commented that in terms of radicalization, universities have a responsibility to expose students to all kind of ideas and to present various points of view and frameworks, with students having an open and safe space to argue and debate. The faculty can provide guidance and discuss students positions and ideas with them, otherwise they will look for alternative outlets including groups with radical agendas, taking the most capable and passionate youth in the direction of extremism and hatred.

Ms. Anamaría Cardona, Director of Partnerships and Community Engagement at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, expressed concern about social media, where information spreads quickly and is far-reaching, making it a tool for spreading hate speech and violent extremism. “Fake news, hate speech, violence are among the things that parents will not always feel comfortable to talk about with their children. Higher education personnel need to be able to recognize and understand radical behaviours, identify risk factors and intervene in the appropriate way,” she added.

During the Q&A segment, participants raised questions on topics such as setting clear values and guidelines for faculty and administrators to follow when having dialogues with students about extremism and radicalization, and recovering after the COVID-19 crisis.

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UN75 Rethinking Radicalization

On 1 June 2020, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosted a webinar on the theme “Rethinking Radicalization”, as part of the UNAI “75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation” online dialogue series.