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Executive Summary: STRATEGIC EXTREMIST LABELING: AN INCREASING TREND

Simona Neupauerova, Chelsea New, Gabby Silberman, Jonas Stassen, Extremism Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021


Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny[1]


Governments are increasingly instrumentalizing the extremism label for non-extremist groups to legitimize their suppression, examples of this practice can be found in Xinjiang, China, or Belarus. Within the last few years, the Chinese government has claimed the treatment of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province of the country is designed to combat extremism. Additionally, in 2021 the Russian and Belarusian governments labeled opposition parties as extremist groups, advancing the current governments’ political agenda. Without a universal definition of extremism, governments can manipulate and broaden the scope of extremism to justify their use of counterterrorism measures and policies against those labeled extremists. This is highly concerning as it infringes on human rights and can be used as a political tool against any opposition to those in power. Labeling an opponent as an extremist can be politically advantageous and is therefore commonly misappropriated. This trend of ‘strategic extremist labeling’ will likely continue as it is used to maintain a certain degree of power within a country. Despite condemnations from the international community, there will very likely be an increase in several governments labeling certain groups and populations as extremist.


There is no universal agreement on what makes an individual, group, or behavior 'extremist’. The definition falls into the hands of the definer; this allows for different governments or organizations to use their standards for classifying. This classification has been frequently deployed as a part of a national strategy to address security threats more effectively, yet an official designation of domestic extremism carries significant consequences. Governments and organizations have almost certainly utilized the ‘extremist’ label to repress minority or opposition groups whose values, faith, ethnicity, or morals do not seemingly align with the main authority figures in the country ー doing so benefits their levels of domestic control. Using ‘extremism’ designation as a means of countering terrorism somewhat legitimizes the act of such labeling, as well as how those labeled as ‘extremists’ are treated, as it implies that the necessary steps are being taken to ensure national security by neutralizing a perceived threat. While such labeling can enable the reduction of extremism, it can also likely increase the number of groups labeled as ‘extremists. The use of this label, once-classified incorrectly or unjustly, can very likely lead to an infringement on fundamental human rights and preempt violence, genocide, or acts of ethnic cleansing.


As there is no universal definition of the term, governments are free to utilize the label 'extremist' freely, creating an opportunity for misuse by those in power for their advantage, often political gains. Examples of such practices are becoming more and more common. Most recently, the Moscow City Court in Russia labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin's political opponent Alexei Navalny, his supporters, and his organizations, including the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, as 'extremist'.[2] Labeling Navalny and his supporters as extremists makes their accusation and prosecution easier, as in Russia the 'extremism' label denotes lengthy prison sentences for anyone charged, even those who merely share content labeled ‘extremist’. Similarly, Belarus has added a significant number of activists and political opponents to its list of individuals involved in terrorist activity, including Sviatlana Tsikhaounskaya and Pavel Latushka.[3] This 'anti-extremist legislation strategy has been increasingly used to deter and silence the opposition amidst rising discontent and decreasing popularity of the ruling parties and as a consequence significantly infringes the right to freedom of expression as designated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is likely to negatively affect wider global society, as human rights are the basis for international cooperation, policy, and decision-making regarding sanctions and military action. The disregard of human rights is likely to impact the credibility of the international decision-makers, both domestically within their borders and among the rest of the world.


The United States (US), alongside other countries, has accused China of committing an act of genocide for their treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang in “Vocational Education and Training Centers”.[4] Designating the term ‘extremist’ to describe a minority or opposition group, such as the Uighurs, almost certainly allows governments and organizations to ignore human rights and civil liberties, as well as commit genocide in extreme situations. Such abuses are framed as a matter of protecting national security under appropriate counterterrorism measures, seemingly giving these crimes a veneer of legality and legitimacy. While the international community has been aware of the “Vocational Education and Training Centers” in China, alongside other examples of ‘extremist’ being used as a method of domestic control, there is yet to be substantial intervention to help those communities who have been repressed and violated. This could allow for future strategic labeling of minority and opposition groups as ‘extremist’ since the consequences of doing so will not be feared.


This method of repression is a concerning trend. Currently, the international community is condemning strategic ‘extremist’ labeling but not yet undertaking much action. Countries like China are too economically powerful for sanctions to serve as a sound deterrent against extremist labeling; however, sanctions may likely only be one of few practical actions to implement against China. If little action continues to be taken against countries and organizations that continue to use the label ‘extremism’ to oppress and marginalize minority and opposition groups for domestic control, it is very likely other governments and organizations will follow suit without fear of consequences. Recently, the Nicaraguan government has been suppressing political opponents ahead of the November election this year and will likely label these political opponents and journalists who speak out against the current president as ‘extremists’. This concern exists even in developed nations, where strategic ‘extremist’ labeling can very likely be used for the repression of dissenting individuals and organizations. In 2018, the United Kingdom (UK) updated its counterterrorism strategy and extended the term ‘extremist’ to also indicate the opposition of “fundamental British values.”[5] Although this might not be an imminent threat, it could likely provide the government with certain liberties in the elimination of opposition. Apart from the threat to the UK’s domestic civil liberties, this is likely a reason the international community is hesitant to strongly condemn other countries’ strategic extremist labeling because of their use.


CTG recommends a multifaceted approach to combat this ongoing problem. The international community should continue to work towards creating a better consensus on what exactly constitutes ‘extremism’, ensuring protective measures are put in place for minority and opposition groups who may be subject to and vulnerable to targeting by powerful governments and organizations. Extremist ideologies or thoughts themselves are not punishable and individual convictions are extensively protected by the right to freedom of speech in certain parts of the world. Therefore, efforts should focus on implementing a definition of ‘extremism’ within international law, as well as international legislation focusing on the prevention of violent extremism, while allowing the right to protest and freedom of speech. While the actions of the Chinese and Russian Governments have been internationally condemned, including by the United Nations (UN), condemnation alone is insufficient. CTG recommends a stronger international framework for the use of the label extremist, with a possibility to sanction. The current lack of international intervention sends a message to other governments and organizations that this is effectively warranted and acceptable behavior. CTG recommends the creation of comprehensive international oversight mechanisms through independent advisory bodies. The advisory would monitor label attachment to prevent infringement of human rights and divisions while striving to implement international consensus on the evaluation of such labels.


CTG will continue to monitor the international community’s application of strategic extremist labeling. The Extremism Team will utilize CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H) to track potential misuses of the extremism label. CTG analysts will continue to spread awareness about the issue and its wide-reaching implications. Based on detailed research and analysis, CTG will aim to provide recommendations on minimizing the harm that the extremism label introduces, and strive to hold the responsible authorities accountable.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Vladimir Putin vs Alexei Navalny by krassotkin licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Alexei Navalny: Moscow court outlaws 'extremist' organisations, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-57422346

[3] Political opponents of the Belarussian regime labelled as terrorists, Belarus in Focus, April 2021, https://belarusinfocus.info/security-issues/political-opponents-belarusian-regime-labelled-terrorists

[4] Who are the Uyghurs and why is China being accused of genocide?, BBC News, June 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22278037

[5] CONTEST 3.0, Secretary of State for the Home Department of the United Kingdom, June 2018 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/716907/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798-1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf

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