Partners in Prevention: Addressing Threats to Civilian Security

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Brussels, Belgium
January 20, 2015


Date: 01/20/2015 Location: Brussels, Belgium Description: Under Secretary Sewall delivers remarks, ''Partners in Prevention: Addressing Threats to Civilian Security'' - State Dept Image

Thank you very much for the kind introduction, Rosa. I am grateful for the European Policy Center for organizing today’s event and pleased to be part of your “Europe in the World” series. Europe has a crucial role to play in every aspect of world affairs today, and events like this one are important in promoting discussion on the challenges that we share.

I’m delighted to be here in Brussels today – the seat of the European Union. The EU has been one of the world’s great projects of reconciliation and unity. Think about it. This community—which rose from the ashes of devastation wrought by World War II – has become a beacon of international cooperation and one of the foundations for lasting peace in Europe. At every level, from negotiating on Iran’s nuclear program to guaranteeing safe cars for drivers and medicine for patients, the EU has become an unparalleled force for good on the world stage and in the lives of its citizens.

For decades, the United States has worked with the EU, its member-states and through NATO and the OSCE in support of their vision to create a secure, democratic, prosperous and resilient Europe. As President Obama said on September 3rd in Tallinn, “because of the work of generations, because we’ve stood together in a great alliance, because people across this continent have forged a European Union dedicated to cooperation and peace, we have made historic progress toward the vision we share -- a Europe that is whole and free and at peace.”

And for decades, we have looked to our European Allies and partners to lead with us globally on issues ranging from supporting democracy and human rights to bolstering development and caring for refugees to protecting our citizens from terrorism and the violent ideology that underpins it.

I should say my role in the U.S. government gives me particular insight into how important our cooperation is across so many areas. “J,” the part of State Department that I lead – something like a DG in EU-speak – handles policy and programs on issues such as terrorism and violent extremism, transnational crime, corruption, refugees, security sector reform, human rights, and conflict prevention. Part of what makes our “J” focus different is that we concentrate on how US foreign policy affects people just as much as we look at foreign policy as pertains to governments.

This unique dimension of US-EU shared global leadership is what I’d like to talk about. Specifically about two issues that we confront both domestically and internationally – corruption and violent extremism. As Secretary Kerry said in Bulgaria last week, no region has a monopoly on the problem of corruption, and no country is exempt from this problem. In fact, the former governor of the US state of Virginia was just sentenced to two years in jail after being convicted on 12 counts of abuse of office. We all can do more, to keep faith with our own citizens, ensure justice, and be good stewards of public resources. And if we look at it from a broader perspective, from a civilian security perspective, we also know that corruption and poor governance fuel the disaffection that we find to be among the root conditions that can give rise to violent extremism.

So today in talking to you about how we ensure civilian security, I would start by noting that we face a common challenge in insecurity and fragility. Key to meeting that challenge, I am now convinced, consists in applying a preventive lens, a lens that in the long-run—and we do need a long-term approach – will ensure a continuation of the peace and prosperity we collectively have worked long and hard to build. We can applying the preventive lens to both anti-corruption efforts and to more effectively address the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed violent extremism.


The United States and the EU have long worked together to tackle corruption locally, regionally and globally – on both sides of the Atlantic.

The traditional approach to combatting corruption is through law enforcement – detecting and punishing perpetrators that have committed illicit acts. And we have made progress on that front.

The U.S. enforces the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which since 2009 has generated around $3 billion dollars in penalties and convictions against more than 50 individuals. The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention has helped universalize those standards. Our multilateral conventions – such as the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption – and less formal bodies – such as the G-20 Anti-Corruption Working Group, which the U.S. is co-chairing this year with Turkey, bind us to a common set of commitments. And the U.S. provides $600 million dollars in assistance each year to help ensure foreign governments have the capacity to implement those commitments, including our support regional capacity building initiatives in Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and Paris." Lastly, we use our visa sanction authority in an apolitical manner to deny entry to corrupt leaders, and we support partners in Europe who are doing the same.

But only focusing on corruption once it has occurred is only half the battle. The new frontier is about trying to prevent corruption – so that we’re not just relying on after-the-fact prosecution, which requires clearing the difficult hurdle of detecting an illicit activity, but on deterring officials from engaging in graft in the first place.

In looking at what it means to prevent corrupt acts, consider the question of what would make an employee at the motor vehicles office decide not to demand “a little extra” in exchange for a driver’s license.

  • It might be streamlining the process of getting a license, so there are fewer discretionary transactions to be tampered with in the first place. Estonia has pioneered this model, developing e-governance tools that made government operations more transparent and accountable to civil society, business, the media and, most importantly, Estonian citizens.
  • Prevention might require that public employees be adequately compensated for their work at the outset. If they can make ends meet from their salaries, they are less likely to demand a bribe.
  • But the cornerstone of prevention remains boosting transparency – helping everyday people understand what the actual rules are so that they can push back if they are asked to pay “extra” to get a driver’s license. In Nepal, a wiki platform supported by the NGO The Accountability Lab crowd-sources information on topics like how to get a birth certificate or driver’s license. This helps Nepalis demand proper procedures as they enter into transactions, and signals that government employees will be held accountable if they break the rules.

Websites like go one step further – enabling citizens in India to track first-hand experiences of corruption at local agencies – shining a light and building a collective around experiences that were previously shadowy and individualized.

With our European partners, we are also promoting transparency through the Open Government Partnership, bringing global civil society and governments from 65 countries together to strengthen the internal, vertical relationships of accountability between governments and their citizenry at home. In Georgia, the government is following through on its OGP commitments to combat corruption by making political party financing transparent, and developing an online system for government procurement.

Across Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, our embassies are stepping up their work with governments, civil society, the media, and business communities to promote accountability. In the Czech Republic, for example, over 20 NGOs came together to form an anti-corruption coalition, supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Embassy.

Lastly, we seek to deter corruption by incorporating relevant provisions in our free trade agreements. Our negotiators are currently exploring how to include anti-corruption components in the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. T-TIP aims to set a new gold standard for how trade will be conducted in the 21st century. Undergirding fair, accountable, and clean governance in our trade relations is a good place to start.

Ultimately, preventing corruption and prosecuting it can generate a virtuous cycle– with credible law enforcement creating a deterrent effect that then reduces the likelihood that officials will engage in graft in the first place.

As we work to both prevent and combat corruption, we have to constantly remind ourselves why we care so much about this threat. In my view, corruption’s negative effects can be divided into three areas – corruption weakens democracy, economic vitality, and security.

First, corruption’s impact on democracy: When politicians steal public funds rather than spend them appropriately, schools go without books, patients go without medicine, and merchants go without bridges and roads. That frays the fabric of the social contract, alienating the people and undermining attempts by government to assert legitimacy or establish democracy. Corruption is also the glue that holds many authoritarian regimes together, giving rulers the ability to divide spoils, and the opportunity to out the “dirt” on cronies when convenient or if they turn disloyal. Democracy suffers as a result.

Corruption has a similarly pernicious effect on economic growth, competition, and innovation. When companies have to pay bribes to cut through red tape, it actually incentivizes the creation of more red tape, slowing transaction times and raising business expenses. When public funds are used to line the pockets of well-off officials and their circles, it breeds cynicism and resignation among the country’s entrepreneurs and tax payers. Tax evasion rises. Foreign direct investment decreases. And many of the most highly-educated workers move abroad. The effects and influence of corruption are so dangerous to economic prosperity that the World Bank has labeled corruption as “public enemy number one.” And the European Commission estimates that corruption costs the EU economy more than $160 billion dollars a year.

Part of combatting corruption is protecting our own financial systems from harboring stolen assets, which can be used to finance terrorism. Proceeds of corruption are often sheltered in bank accounts or shell corporations in Europe and the United States. We need to uncover the real “beneficial owners” of these accounts.

The third – and perhaps most underappreciated – feature of corruption is its impact on national security and sovereignty.

Corruption alienates and angers citizens, which can cause them to lose faith in the state, or, worse, fuel political instability, and violent extremism.

Just look at Ukraine. The protesters on Maidan had many grievances, but one of their most pressing – part of what drove Ukrainians into the streets in frigid temperatures – was that they were fed up with the sleaze, graft and cronyism that had been robbing the country of its promise for far too long. They resented a kleptocratic regime parading around in democratic trappings.

Nominal “public servants” like Yanukovych and his cronies not only enriched themselves at the cost of schools, roads and hospitals, but they also weakened public institutions and created wormholes in key sectors like energy and the media that malicious actors continue to exploit. Corruption had weakened service delivery, scared off investment, and crippled the justice system. Businesses, and even foreign countries had for years bought and bribed their way into political influence over Ukrainian legislative and procurement decisions.

And as public frustration boiled, Russian interference escalated. Ukrainian security institutions that were needed to fend off Russian aggression struggled to mount an adequate defense. For years, they had been starved of funding or weakened by graft, rendering them less effective. This left the Ukrainian people vulnerable to outside aggressors.

Other examples of corruption’s impact on security abound. In Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to exploit public discontent with corruption to garner support and fuel their brand of violent extremism.

In Iraq, disillusionment with the government – including its corruption – creates fertile soil for ISIL to exploit. Just last month, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi discovered that 50,000 “ghost soldiers” were listed on the government payroll, costing Iraqis approximately $380 million a year. Citizens feel betrayed by these scams, indirectly because their taxes and resources are enriching nominal “public servants,” but also directly because they do not receive the security and protection that they both finance and require.

Next week, I am heading to Nigeria, where corruption has hollowed out the national military, leaving soldiers underfed, underpaid, and unable to defend citizens against internal threats such as Boko Haram.

The cost is grave: In 2014 alone, Boko Haram killed more than 5,000 people and displaced some 1.5 million. It has declared an Islamic Caliphate in northeast Nigeria, controlling land and populations in some communities. The United States, the UK, and others are working with Nigerian partners to confront this threat and prevent atrocities, but that work is much harder to do because of corruption’s corrosive effects on the military.

So we see in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and many other cases that corruption enables violent extremism to thrive, and puts everyday people at risk. We want to deepen our partnership with the EU and its member states to confront corruption, whether at home or abroad.

Of course, corruption is just one of the enablers of violent extremism, and efforts to combat it will need to be taken in concert with a number of policy and programmatic interventions if we are to stem the growth of violent extremism. Members of communities that are denied services or preyed upon by corrupt officials are susceptible to extremist narratives of social justice and law and order. Terrorists who need shelter, funding, and weapons are able to support themselves with the protection of corrupt police officers and border and customs guards. Militaries and security services are unequipped to face the challenge presented by insurgent terrorists, because corrupt politicians and military leaders have stolen funds needed for training, arms, fuel and food. And so this leads me to the second area where we think the application of a preventive approach will pay significant dividends over the long-term: violent extremism.

Preventing Violent Extremism

Regrettably, the murderous attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this month that continues to attract the world’s attention, is yet another tragedy prompted in large part by terrorists fomenting a perverse interpretation of Islam.. As Secretary Kerry made clear in his visit to Paris last week, we stand with the citizens of Paris and beyond not just in horror and outrage for this vicious act of violence, which we see far too often around the globe, but in commitment both to the cause of confronting extremism and in the cause which the extremists fear so much and which has always united the U.S and Europe: freedom

Terrorism has become a nearly universal concern as a growing number of countries struggle in the face of violent extremism. The United States is committed to combating and countering terrorism while respecting human rights; continuing our intelligence cooperation, strengthening aviation security and showing our publics—both in the United States and Europe—that privacy and security need not be mutually exclusive.

Over the past decade, Islamic violent extremist groups have dramatically expanded their reach across a growing number of countries, largely but not exclusively in the Middle East and Africa.

And since September 2001, we have seen the global response to this threat evolve, gradually broadening beyond reliance on military force, which is where it understandably began, to include an emphasis on law enforcement and border security. Most recently, as emphasized in Security Council Resolution 2178, which Council members adopted at the conclusion of a historic session on foreign terrorist fighters chaired by President Obama, there is increased focus on developing targeted programs to counter the most immediate violent extremist threats through counter-radicalization, and increasingly expanding messaging efforts that counter the nihilist narrative Jihadis spout. Yet despite our significant efforts to date, the threat has grown. The challenge extends even beyond interrupting recruitment and countering the extremist narrative.

Governments’ responses evolved as they came to better understand that removing terrorists from the battlefield either by killing them or locking them up cannot, by itself, address the current threat, let alone the next generation of the problem. The next phase of our effort will focus more attention on what President Obama highlighted in May 2013 as “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed terrorism."

To get ahead of the next iteration of the terrorist threat, we can explore a more preventative approach. One that addresses the much broader set of enabling factors of violent extremism. Where there is weak governance or a lack of quality education, economic opportunity, or respect for human rights, citizens are most at risk to being alienated by or from their governments and each other. This is not just about ideological affinity; it is about alienation and anger that drives communities to align or tolerate the violent extremists. The hard lessons of Iraq teach us that Sunni tribes didn’t necessarily change their religious beliefs but did decide to welcome ISIL when grievances aligned. These and other grievances tear at the fabric of society and prey on the society’s most vulnerable. Young people are often most prone to radicalize. These may be the same young people whose ideas, passions, and dreams could define a generation of progress if their energy were not first exploited by the nihilistic, fraudulent, and violent industry of terrorism.

Moving towards “Preventing Violent Extremism” – or PVE – means mainstreaming our approach and using traditional foreign policy tools, such as development, stabilization efforts, humanitarian assistance, and peacebuilding. It requires new analytical tools and policy ideas that specifically address enablers of extremism among populations at most acute risk. By pursuing carefully designed programmatic and diplomatic interventions based on targeted analysis, PVE seeks to build three mutually reinforcing end states.

First: responsive and capable states that can be a primary civilian guarantor and response to the needs of their populations. Depending on the local context, PVE efforts would include strengthening civilian institutions so they not only provide security but are responsive to the needs of their citizens, and ensuring inclusive governance to reduce political or socioeconomic marginalization of particular groups.

Second: building secure and resilient communities in which the vulnerable reject and condemn violent extremism because they don’t need to align with extremist groups to address their concerns. This includes some of what we refer to as Countering Violent Extremism programs, such as providing alternative opportunities for youth engagement, leadership, and self-expression. PVE expands programming beyond the individuals and communities that appear most vulnerable to direct recruitment. Depending on the circumstances, PVE efforts may also harness the community’s leaders, build its cohesion and address specific needs and grievances.

We cannot seek to address all drivers of discontent, nor can we “fix” every nation. But we can identify the most vulnerable—for example, working with Somali communities in Kenya or with border communities between Niger and Nigeria. While economic development, youth leadership, and education are all efforts that are critical to PVE work, these efforts are not undertaken based on humanitarian need and executed impartially, but instead are specifically designed to address particular social, economic, and development weaknesses in populations that are determined to be vulnerable to tolerating, aligning, and joining with violent extremist movements. This is why we must improve our analytical understanding of those communities and vulnerabilities, so that we can design interventions to most effectively prevent radicalization. I am here to learn your perspective on this point.

The third element of PVE involves weakening appeal of violent extremism to undercut the validity, and authority of the extremist narrative. This requires much more than simply increasing online efforts to keep pace with the saturation of terrorist recruitment and other messaging on the Internet. It also requires amplifying the voices of Muslim educators, leaders, and others who promote tolerance and peace, welcome diversity, and who are more influential than any government in discrediting and speaking out against the hijacking of religion in the name of violence against civilians.

Close cooperation between the U.S. and European Union has been at the heart of the successful efforts over the past six years to strengthen the international architecture for addressing the 21st century terrorist challenge and the violent ideology that underpins it and to focus more global attention and resources on countering recruitment, radicalization, and messaging to address the terrorist threats of today. This has included the launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the creation of Hedayah, the first of its kind CVE training center and the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, and funding innovative CVE projects in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Kenya, or collaborating to address violent extremism in the Balkans that is fueling the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters. Now is the time to broaden the aperture and intensify our efforts to cooperate to prevent tomorrow’s terrorism from emerging.

Significantly strengthening the preventative dimension of our policy offers many advantages. It will help focus more attention on the longer-term, civilian aspects of the violent extremist challenge we face that have yet to receive the policy support or resources they deserve. By focusing on building states that are responsive to the needs of their citizens and resilient communities that can say “no” when violent extremism knocks on their door, it offers an affirmative, positive, and constructive agenda, rather than one that is destructive and reactive. Most fundamentally, it allows us to adopt an approach that is most consistent with U.S and European values as we continue to work together to build a more prosperous and democratic world and a more stable and peaceful path to the future.

Strong cooperation between the U.S. and Europe lay at the heart of our successful efforts to overcome the complex security, ideological, and humanitarian challenges of the 20th century. And this same level of cooperation will be required to overcome the phenomenon of violent extremism — the ideology, the networks, the capacity to recruit young people, and the lack of economic opportunity, quality education, respect for human rights, and good governance that enable it to spread.