Civil Society Indispensable in Reducing Danger of Terrorism, Study Says


A recent study by researchers at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies illuminates a harmful consequence of the “global war on terror.” Suspicion and repressive security policies have crippled the work of human rights and development organizations around the world, according to a report presented to the United Nations. Yet it is these very groups that can be most effective in defeating terrorism, because they address the political grievances and injustices that are among the root causes of conflict.

“It takes more than improved security to end violent extremism,” says David Cortright, research fellow at the Kroc Institute, who led the study. “It also requires getting to the core of conflicts by working to eradicate poverty, end foreign occupation, and support human rights and development. Civil society groups engaged in this important work help dry up the wells of extremism from which violence springs.”

The report, “Friend not Foe: Civil Society and the Struggle against Violent Extremism,” was presented to the United Nations in fall 2008 and will be presented in March 2009 in Washington, D.C., to officers of peacemaking and development organizations. To conduct the study, Cortright, Kroc professor George A. Lopez, and colleagues from the Fourth Freedom Forum met with more than 150 representatives of civil society organizations, donor agencies, research centers, and governments in the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Uganda. The project was commissioned by Cordaid, the Dutch-based international development organization, which has partners in 30 countries.

Many policies carried out in the name of counter-terrorism are actually making the terrorist danger worse, according to researchers.  For example, intensified operations against insurgents and alleged terrorists have led to a sharp rise in killings and abductions of human rights workers and political activists. Organizations working for peace and justice are themselves listed as terrorist or are suspected of supporting groups that have been labeled terrorist. Legislation adopted to fight terrorism and insurgency has been used to restrict freedom, undermine human rights, and crack down on political activists who criticize government policies.

On the positive side, according to the report, many policies for thwarting violent attacks are working well. Especially effective are programs that emphasize community policing, promote the rule of law, and encourage support for sustainable development and the defense of human rights. The United Nations has established a range of programs for improving international police cooperation and strengthening nonmilitary pressures against terrorists. In particular, the U.N.’s 2006 “Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy” links the struggle against terrorism to broader principles for avoiding violent conflict through development, democracy, and diplomacy.

The report concludes with recommendations to governments about how to adjust policy to protect the work of civil society and nongovernment organizations while not creating obstacles to security.

Contact: David Cortright, (574) 631-8536,