David CameronCameron: The Commonwealth’s education networks make it “particularly well placed to complement international efforts to build counter narratives to....extremist ideology”. [credit: CHOGM Malta]

Dr Paul Flather analyses the Commonwealth initiative to combat radicalisation on campus

UK universities are engaged with the Commonwealth Secretariat in an initiative to tackle radicalisation on campuses across the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth leaders had agreed to establish a special unit to combat so-called ‘radicalisation’ of young people from villages through to campuses – with a special focus on educated youth. The unit will work with universities across the Commonwealth.

This was one of three key initiatives to emerge from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM, in Malta – alongside a statement on climate change.

Pledges of £5 million (US$7.6 million) from British Prime Minister David Cameron and A$2.5 million (US$1.8 million) from Australian Premier Malcolm Turnbull over five years, were announced to support the new Commonwealth Countering Violent Extremism Unit which aims to ‘challenge the terrorist narratives that are so attractive to young people’. The unit will operate in the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The chairman of CHOGM, hosting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, explained that the unit would work to develop concrete structures to help different countries with fighting “the main threat in our time”.

“Young people are being lured into terrorist groups. As governments we must counter their fascination with such groups.” He said that more and more and more educated youngsters, including more and more middle-class young people, were being drawn to these ideologies.

Muscat, anticipating the British vote to join the bombing in Syria, made it clear that the fight against terrorism, unfortunately but necessarily, involved military action, but it was also important to use education, economic and development tools to combat this.

The Commonwealth, which comprises 53 members, covers one in four of the world’s total population – with 60% aged 25 or younger.

’The struggle of our generation’

David Cameron spoke of defeating terrorism as “the struggle of our generation”. A key element of the five-year strategy to confront the terrorist ideology would be to tackle materials that are being put up online.

He said the Commonwealth’s civil society and education networks make it “particularly well placed to complement international efforts to build counter narratives to this poisonous extremist ideology”.

According to the UK Prime Minister’s Office, a team of experts from various states would be seconded into the unit to work with civil society networks and governments, particularly in states with a disproportionately high number of foreign fighters, to build national, regional and international counter-terrorism strategies.

Malcolm Turnbull said that the new funds would be used to counter extremist narratives wherever they arose. He saw this as a matter of culture, sharing David Cameron’s view that while not all extremism ended up in violence, all violent extremism began with such narratives.

He said the Commonwealth was well placed to grapple with such cultural issues, with countries learning from each other about law enforcement and other measures and advocating its own culture, based on mutual respect of individuals.

The outgoing Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, told University World News that the unit would set about producing materials which would ensure young minds were not fertile soil for such narratives.

He said these would be distributed through a special Commonwealth online ‘classroom’ to make young people – rich and poor, well-educated or not – aware of the positive values that the Commonwealth represented. He added that he hoped other Commonwealth countries would now add funds to support the unit’s work.

This will now be taken forward by his successor, Baroness Patricia Scotland, who won a contested election, standing from her native Dominica. She is a former UK Labour attorney general.

Initial consultations

Since CHOGM, a spokesperson for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London has told University World News that initial consultations are being carried out with Coventry University, the University of London and Queen’s University Belfast and that further work will be carried out with other higher education institutions across the Commonwealth to develop curricula for higher education and schools.

Topics that might be covered by these materials include restorative justice, tolerance, arbitration, and training for leaders and media practitioners.

At CHOGM, Kamalesh Sharma also revealed that the Commonwealth office had been approached by an unnamed university which wanted to set up a special centre to work with the Commonwealth to study and work on its strategic policies and its work on building civil partnerships.

Earlier Prime Minister Muscat had given an example of how the unit might operate. He described how a Ugandan speaking at the Commonwealth Youth Forum – one of four fora on women, on business, on peoples and on youth – had joined Boko Haram because he could not land a job. Now he wanted to help in the fight against terrorism and we need to provide materials to support people like him. The work needed to be ‘demand driven’ too.

The Youth Forum was also the host of a controversial debate on LGBTQ – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer – rights which had revealed deep divisions in approaches, with African students and representatives particularly defensive about accepting such rights and culture on their campuses.

Malcolm Turnbull, perhaps one of the stars of the CHOGM, also announced €1 million (US$1.5 million) to support a Commonwealth programme to improve access to education through distance and open learning courses.

Dr Paul Flather is a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford, and secretary-general of the Europaeum association. He sits on the editorial board of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.