Ethical Considerations in Counter-radicalisation

This report represents PERICLES Deliverable 6.1 and is authored by Katerina Hadjimatheou from the University of Warwick.  The purpose of the deliverable is to identify ethical issues that arise in relation to the design and application of counter radicalisation tools.  This is a very dense and theoretically sophisticated report that can only be introduced and summarised in brief here. Ethics informs us about the difference between right and wrong behaviours, and the course of action that we should avoid if we care about such matters. Law, on the other hand, informs us about proscribed actions and behaviours that we must avoid irrespective of our personal view of the matter. Much law is of course informed by ethics, however ethics is a much broader field and, as such, much ethical behaviour is not compelled by law. Ethics provides guidance not just on behaviour to be avoided so as not to offend, hurt or exploit others, but also on moral standards to which we should aspire in our treatment of, and relations with, others. The ethical debates surrounding prevention, surveillance, and counter-radicalisation work in general are significant and require much reflection and consideration. PERICLES engages with these ethical guidelines and debates, including the contradictions and tensions between principles and practice, and seeks to develop tools that comply with the highest ethical standards and be a model of best practice.

Scrutinising law and law enforcement measures, including counter-radicalisation policy and practice, from an ethical viewpoint is therefore warranted and necessary. It is the explicit aim of PERICLES to be cognizant of contemporary ethical debates and standards, as well as gaps in knowledge, when designing and creating counter-radicalisation tools. The difficulty of this endeavour, as outlined in the report, hinges on the complexity of the issues at hand and the careful consideration required to differentiate between radicalisation and radicalisation that leads to violence. Liberal democracies must try to protect the rights of citizens, and indeed non-citizens alike, to hold beliefs that mainstream society find unappealing, even abhorrent.  Nevertheless, society has both a legal and moral obligation to empower Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) with the powers and tools required for monitoring and tracking radicalisation that will lead to violence. One can argue that differentiating between these two forms of radicalisation is impossible, certainly given our current lack of knowledge regarding processes of radicalisation, yet great effort must be made to advance our knowledge and practice in this regard.

The report touches on the ethical considerations of all PERICLES tools, but spends much time on the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT). The V.A.T. creates an assessment of an individual’s vulnerability to radicalisation and provides recommendations for responsive action. For use by LEAs, but also potentially city councils and other statutory institutions, the V.A.T. considers a variety of indicators from at-risk individuals and groups, including behaviour, religion, personal factors, family circumstances and social networks. The tool therefore focuses on people who are designated as potentially ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’. However, this categorisation is not without its ethical problematics. For example, the report argues that ‘vulnerability to radicalisation’ can conflate ‘vulnerability’ with ‘threat’, and responses to either vulnerability or threat need to have their own clearly demarcated parameters in practice. Approaches that seek to reduce vulnerability and approaches that seek to reduce threat are often mutually incompatible.  Further, the vulnerable can be dangerous, and the dangerous can be vulnerable, so a dichotomous categorisation can obfuscate the messy reality of processes of radicalisation. Therefore, initiatives that seek to develop new assessment tools and counter-radicalisation measures need to be cognizant of these complex realities and be informed by a reflective, considered and interdisciplinary approach.

The report also brings a focus on the concept of vulnerability within a liberal democratic political and social context, and it is worth summarising the approach here. If vulnerability means being open to persuasion regarding the righteousness of a particular ideology, religion or line of political action, then the majority of citizens could meet this criteria. Indeed, the vast majority of people undergo processes of evolving political and/or religious affiliations throughout their life-course, very often influenced by the arguments and persuasion of others.   While many extremist groups recruit and spread their ideology through emotionally coercive methods, using propaganda and distortions, they also use facts and rational dialogue. Therefore, does the concept of ‘vulnerability’ apply to the overwhelming mass of the body politic? That can’t be right. This line of reasoning highlights the urgency for reflection on these important issues, and I once again encourage interested readers to take the time to engage with the debate as presented in this excellent deliverable.

Interventions based on assessments of being ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ can create great anger and resentment and can be experienced as deeply stigmatising by those who are targeted. Further, and crucial to emphasise, it can also be stigmatising to others who share the same religious or ethnic groups as the individual who has been identified as vulnerable to radicalisation.  The targeting of specific religious and ethnic groups for counter-radicalisation measures has contributed to suspicions and tensions between communities, and between communities and government (see Mastroe, 2016, Thomas 2014, 2015).  It is therefore essential to carefully design any future tools and interventions with this in mind. The PERICLES V.A.T. will be designed using insight and knowledge into various political and religious extremist ideologies. This emphasises the absolute importance of the qualitative data collection that is at the core of the PERICLES project. Data is currently being collected in all consortium member countries that will be carefully analysed in order to further advance our knowledge about the causes and processes of radicalisation. As already mentioned, this data is being collected from political and religious extremists and former extremists. The V.A.T. operationalises knowledge on processes of radicalisation into far-right, far-left, and religious extremism and, therefore, does not focus on any one community, religious or ethnic group. It is hoped that the V.A.T. can be a powerful new method for dispelling myths about the strong links between any one community and radicalisation. The V.A.T. will aim to be the most comprehensive and sophisticated, as well as ethically compliant, assessment tool available to LEAs in EU member states.

The remainder of the report discusses the ethical considerations that are being taken into account in the development some of the other PERICLES tools, namely the Cyberspace Detection System; Family Care Package; and the Enhanced Platform of Exchange. The author concludes that with all these tools, especially the V.A.T., there needs to be careful training, awareness-raising, and sensitisation of users to the ethical implications of the tools, in order to avoid the many potential pitfalls that await those who may use these tools for the common good.

 

Thomas, Paul (2014) Prevent and Community Cohesion in Britain – The Worst of All Possible Worlds? In: Counter Radicalisation Critical Perspectives. Routledge Critical Terrorism Studies . Routledge, London,

 

Thomas, Paul (2015) A ‘tainted brand’? Britain’s Prevent programme. In: Islamic Extremism:

Prevention and Deradicalisation Between Expectations and Realities, 3rd July 2015 Frankfurt, Germany.

 

Mastroe, C. (2016). Evaluating CVE: Understanding the recent changes to the United Kingdom’s implementation of Prevent. Perspectives on Terrorism10(2).

 

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