Heightened tension in Kashmir and evidence of a Chinese military presence on the Tajik and Afghan side of their border with China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang are putting on display contradictions between the lofty principles of the People’s Republic’s foreign and defense policies and realities on the ground.
The escalating tension between Pakistan and India puts to the test what Pakistan and China tout as an “all-weather friendship.” The test will likely occur when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, debates an Indian demand that the South Asian nation, already grey-listed, be put on the organization’s black list.
With the attack and its aftermath unfolding as FATF this week concluded a meeting in Paris, the Kashmir incident is expected to really play out in June when the group is certain to discuss a report that is expected to provide what India considers evidence of Pakistan’s alleged culpability for this month’s attack on a bus in Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary personnel as well as Pakistani backing for the group believed responsible for the assault and other militant organizations.
Pakistan has denied the allegations and offered to help investigate the Kashmir incident.
China, however, despite refusing to prevent FATF from grey-listing Pakistan last year, will find it increasingly difficult to defend its shielding of Pakistan in the United Nations and could be caught in the crossfire as it continues to protect Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group believed responsible for the Kashmir attack.
Like in the past, China this week rejected an Indian request that it no longer block designation of Mr. Azhar by the UN Security Council as a global terrorist. China asserts that Indian evidence fails to meet UN standards.
Nonetheless, China’s shielding of Mr. Azhar risks it being perceived as violating the spirit of the 2017 summit in Xiamen of BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – that for the first time identified Pakistan-backed militant groups as a regional security threat.
Question marks about China’s approach to the countering of political violence and militancy also reflect on China’s justification of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
Concern that militant Uyghurs, the predominant Turkic Muslim minority in Xinjiang, including foreign fighters exfiltrating Syria and Iraq, could use Central Asia as an operational base has prompted China to violate its declared principle of not wanting to establish foreign military bases.
China has been believed to be involved for several years in cross-border operations in Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, both of which border on Xinjiang.
A Washington Post report this week, based on a visit by one of its correspondents to the Tajik-Chinese border provided evidence of China’s military presence on the Tajik side of the dividing line. “We’ve been here three, four years,” a Chinese soldier told the reporter.
Evidence of the long-reported but officially denied Chinese military presence in Tajikistan comes on the back of China’s increasing effort to put in place building blocks that enable it to assert what it perceives as its territorial rights as well as safeguard Xinjiang and protect its mushrooming Diaspora community and overseas investments that are part of its Belt and Road initiative.
The evidence in Tajikistan, moreover, follows the establishment of a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and facilities in the South China Sea that bolster China’s disputed territorial claims.
“Beijing is quietly establishing a security presence in CA (Central Asia) that is broader and deeper than just facilities or hundreds of PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers on the ground,” said Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Alexander Gabuev.
Potentially, China’s military expansion into Central Asia could complicate relations with Russia that sees the Eurasian heartland, once part of the Soviet Union, as its backyard. Continued expansion would call into question a seeming Chinese-Russian division of labour that amounted to Russian muscle and Chinese funding.
Like China, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to be nibbling at the edges of that understanding on a visit to Central Asia this month in which he dangled investment, economic assistance and security guarantees.
Mr. Lavrov’s travels followed a visit to Uzbekistan in October by President Vladimir Putin that produced US$27 billion in commercial deals.
“Russia would be smart to rethink its policy towards CA, and base new approach on support for sovereignty of local states. If Russia won’t view the 5”(Central Asian) states as its subjects, they are likely to seek greater engagement with Moscow to balance Beijing’s econ/sec influence,” Mr. Gabuev said, referring to China’s economic and security interests.
Escaping IS: What Exiting an Armed Group Actually Takes
Authors: Dr Siobhan O’Neil and Dr Mara Revkin*
Although Islamic State’s territorial control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria came to an end in 2017, civilians, and particularly children, in these areas are still living with the long-term consequences of the group’s violence and exploitation. According to a new report by Human Rights Watch, this includes thousands of children abducted by Islamic State (IS) who remain unaccounted for today and thousands of children who cannot move on from conflict because they are viewed as threats and won’t be allowed to reintegrate back into society.
Last week, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers was marked around the world to reflect on the policies and programmes that are most likely to protect rights, promote accountability, and enhance security of young people in armed conflict. In doing so, it is clear that many of the current approaches to those once associated with armed groups do not always strike the right balance. Children’s rights and best interests risk being trumped by short-sighted security considerations, which may ultimately put us all at greater risk.
One such child is “Amr”* – a juvenile detainee at a reformatory in Kurdish Iraq – who we met while undertaking research examining the recruitment and use of children by armed groups. After dropping out of elementary school at the age of 12, Amr worked at a steel factory. One year later, he would become employed as a cook by IS.
Amr was an unlikely recruit. For one, the group had murdered his father. But Amr needed the job in the IS kitchen. It paid better than the steel factory, and he was now responsible for helping support his mother and six siblings, so he felt that he had little choice. A few months after he started to work for IS, Amr was recruited by a family member to spy on the group for a state-sponsored militia. After he was caught taking photographs, Amr was thrown into an IS prison. He eventually managed to escape, only to be caught by security forces and imprisoned again for the crime of having joined a terrorist group.
In many ways, Amr’s story exemplifies the complexity of association with armed groups today. It is often assumed that anyone who becomes involved with such groups must have been brainwashed or be driven by deep-seated ideologically-motivated hate. Yet, involvement with armed groups – even those deemed “violent extremist” like IS or Boko Haram – is never as simple as this conventional narrative, nor is exiting their grasp.
For many like Amr, ideology played no role in motivating or facilitating his involvement with IS or the anti-IS militia. Indeed, our previous research in conflict areas found that young people associating with armed groups are usually influenced by a multitude of interrelated structural, social, individual, and historical factors, of which ideology was rarely the driving determinant. Rather, physical and food security, family and peer networks, financial incentives, coercion, and the pursuit of status and identity were more central for explaining the involvement of many young people with armed groups.
In many countries there is little differentiation made in how or why individuals were associated with such groups. As documented in related research, the use of indiscriminate “iron fist” approaches means that tens of thousands of people – not just those associated with military functions, but also tax-payers, cleaners or cooks like Amr – have been detained on terrorism charges, with thousands believed to have been sentenced to death. Thousands of children languishing in Syria have been barred or discouraged from returning to their home countries, despite the fact that many had no choice in living under IS. This sort of collective punishment could further encourage cycles of violence. We must find ways out for the vast majority of individuals who are associated with armed groups but who do not pose a risk to society.
To create a safer future, and to avoid denying one to the children who have lived under or been associated with armed groups, we need to better understand their experiences and needs for transitioning to a life oriented away from conflict. We need to rethink our assumptions about armed group association and neutrality in conflict, engage children and youth as partners in their own recovery, and support them in the long-term exit process from armed groups. Only then will young people like Amr have a real chance to escape the pull of violent conflict and give back as productive members of their communities.
* Name has been changed for safety reasons.
*Dr Mara Revkin was the lead researcher on the Syria and Iraq case study featured in Cradled by Conflict and the Iraq case study for The Limits of Punishment: Transitional Justice and Violent Extremism. She is a National Security Law Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
Global initiative launched to keep top sports events safe from terrorism
Representatives from international sporting federations and the private sector joined with ambassadors at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday to launch a global programme aimed at safeguarding major sporting events from terrorism-related threats.
The multi-year initiative looks to harness the positive values that sports promote to help crackdown on the spread of violent extremism, particularly among young people.
“Sport pushes people to be better, to aim higher and further. It promotes tolerance and gender equality. It strengthens communities, builds resilience and channels natural competitive instincts in a harmonious way”, said Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).
“Sport is a fundamental and true human value: a strong vaccine against any kind of criminal disease. We have a moral obligation to protect and promote sport.”
Sharing best practices and information
Despite being a unifying force, sporting events have been marred by deadly terrorist attacks.
The 1972 and 1996 Olympic Games, and, more recently, marathons in Sri Lanka and the United States, are some of the tragic examples.
The global programme will develop guidelines to enhance international cooperation, and public-private partnerships, to make sporting events safer for athletes and the public. The launch will be followed by a two-day expert meeting. Another meeting focusing on youth will be held in April.
Participants attending the launch included representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national Olympic committees, the international football association, FIFA, and private companies.
“Protecting major sporting events entails multilevel cooperation and coordination, as well as complex security and policy arrangements. including securing locations, cyber security, crisis planning and management, (and) strategic communications” said Mr. Voronkov.
“Through our joint programme, we will focus on the exchange of information and best practices, and on sharing resources and facilitating partnerships.”
It is essential to advance the consolidation of sport in development and peace strategies , according to the official at the helm of a UN platform which fosters intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation.
“Indeed, sports unites and heals,” Miguel Moratinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), told the gathering.
“It is also a universal language that both, fans and players understand. So, let’s all capitalize on the full potential of sport , with youth in its heart, as a driver for peace and social change .”
Key support from Qatar
Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a key supporter of the initiative, alongside China and the Republic of Korea.
The country and the UN counter-terrorism office signed an agreement last year to establish the world’s first hub for studying the behavioural roots of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.
Qatar is taking measures at the local and global level to ensure security at “the region’s first sporting mega event”, according to the Secretary-Genera of the World Cup preparatory committee.
“We are working hand-in-hand with our allies and partners around the world on exchanging best practice, information sharing, personnel sharing, and in assisting in maintaining the security of Qatar ahead of and during 2022”, Hassan al-Thawadi said in a video message.
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