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February 13, 2015

Letter to President Obama on CVE Summit from Human Rights First and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Dear President Obama: 

We applaud your leadership in convening next week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, and we welcome your efforts to include civil society representatives with experience in dealing with these issues in the Summit. Our two organizations—one U.S.-based and the other based in Cairo, Geneva, and Tunis—have more than fifty years of combined experience dealing with the intersection of security and rights. We write to urge that you use the Summit to underscore the centrality of respect for human rights in the struggle against violent extremism. 

We know that violent extremists abuse and seek to destroy human rights. We also know that human rights violations perpetrated by governments fuel instability and create a climate in which violent extremism flourishes. It is no coincidence that the current wave of violent extremism has found a foothold and proliferated in a region that for decades has suffered from one of the poorest human rights records in the world. Violent extremists and repressive, authoritarian governments feed off of each other in a deadly—and mutually reinforcing—cycle. We urge you to use the Summit to develop short and long-term strategies to break it.

 We know that you understand this dynamic. In your speech to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last September, you recognized that “when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism.” And yet, too often in your recent public comments, you have given the impression that promoting human rights is an impediment to countering terrorism and upholding security. For example, on January 27 on your way to Saudi Arabia to meet with the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, you said, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.” Your speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2014 left the impression that the United States can protect its core interests in the Middle East and promote stability and security without promoting and protecting human rights, and that upholding security and advancing human rights are not inextricably connected. National Security Adviser Susan Rice made a similar point when introducing the new U.S. National Security Strategy in Washington last week, relegating human rights to a “long term” goal, rather than recognizing it as an urgent priority.

The use of such language sends the damaging message—especially to governments with whom the United States is working to combat terrorism—that advancing respect for human rights is not a priority for the United States. Giving the impression that the United States is downgrading the importance of human rights undermines the vital global struggle against violent extremism and terrorism.

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