Tobias Ellwood

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Part of FCDO Human Rights

10th December 2015

Counter extremism in the Middle East

Extremism in all its forms attacks the fundamental values that bind us as a global community and undermine our efforts to build a better, more tolerant world.

These values of democracy, liberty, rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance are enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and today – UN Human Rights Day – I want to celebrate these values while also reflecting on the most pressing threat to those fundamental rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): extremism and those who promote extremist ideologies.

At the forefront of this threat is Daesh. Although a global problem, it is in the MENA region that their rhetoric is finding its most fertile ground. In Iraq and Syria, Daesh commit terrible atrocities against innocent civilians every day, and minority groups are subject to brutal abuse and discrimination. Further afield, their use of social media and the internet has enabled them to spread their poisonous ideology at alarming speed, directly into the family home. Those of us who work to promote human rights need to confront this ideology head on.


The important vote in the British Parliament last week saw the UK take the vital step of joining air strikes in key areas of Syria, to ensure Daesh have no hiding place. It was a difficult decision for many in Parliament to take, as any commitment of our military should be. But it is right the UK steps up to play its part in Syria, as well as Iraq, as a leading member of the Global Coalition established to defeat and destroy Daesh.

Critically, the Global Coalition of more than 60 countries working to defeat Daesh comprises the key players in the MENA region – many of whom are bearing the heaviest burdens of the conflict – as well as those from Europe, North America and Asia. Together, we are taking collective and comprehensive action as part of a multi-pronged strategy to take the fight to the extremists. At the heart of the strategy is military action to roll Daesh back in Iraq and Syria.

This involves supporting local forces in Iraq and Syria who are fighting Daesh – the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Forces, and the Syrian Opposition – through training, equipment and airstrikes. Since our brilliant RAF pilots have been carrying out air strikes in Iraq, they have helped local forces to halt Daesh’s advance and recover 30 percent of the territory Daesh had captured. They will help do the same in Syria.


But the strategy to defeat Daesh cannot begin and end with military action. That’s why our approach includes comprehensive political, diplomatic and humanitarian action. In Syria, we are clear we need to get the right people around the table to discuss a ceasefire. We need a transitional government in Syria and credible elections to deliver that transition. So the UK is playing a leading role in the International Syria Support Group and its Vienna process to urge this crucial diplomatic and political progress.

We need to help the many thousands of hurt and homeless Syrians fleeing the war too, ensuring those whose lives have been devastated by the conflict receive vital humanitarian assistance. In response, the UK is contributing a comprehensive humanitarian package – already at over £1 billion, and set to rise. In addition to this critical contribution supporting the most vulnerable, the UK has committed a further £1 billion towards Syria’s reconstruction and rebuilding.


The UK, as part of the Coalition’s strategy, is also leading efforts to tackle Daesh’s propaganda and the pernicious falsehoods it continues to spread. Daesh claim to have established an effective state. But the reality is the reverse, with people in the territory it controls facing hunger, power-rationing and indiscriminate violence. The UK is leading efforts to expose the lies at the heart of Daesh’s ideology and the propaganda that promotes it, and to support those whose voices truly represent the great religion of Islam.

As announced by the Prime Minister at the UN General Assembly on 29 September 2015, we now host the Global Coalition’s Communications Cell, established to combat and undermine Daesh’s brand and to ensure no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. Through the Cell, our aim is to generate the full range of communications at the pace and scale necessary to highlight Daesh’s failures, its perversion of Islam and to make clear the absurdity of the terrorist group’s proposition. And as it is online that the group market its poisonous ideology and aims to recruit would-be sympathisers and fighters, we are also leading efforts to tackle Daesh’s digital propaganda, working with civil society and internet companies to empower those who wish to challenge extremism online and to limit access to extremist content without compromising the principle of an open internet.

It’s through that collective and combined effort, in particular in partnership with our regional allies, with the digital industry and through our joint efforts to support faith communities and civil society, that we will expose the contradictions and weaknesses in Da’esh’s narrative and build resilient communities able to respond to the extremist challenge.


This type of critical and important work sits at the heart of the UK’s recently published counter extremism strategy. The strategy is a comprehensive plan that targets all forms of extremism, whether that is Islamist or neo-Nazi, violent or non-violent and is based on four strands: countering the ideology of extremism; building social cohesion; supporting moderate mainstream voices; and disrupting the extremists wherever they seek to operate, whether that is in our mosques, our schools, our prisons or online.

The strategy does not just target those who promote violent extremism, but includes measures to counter extremist ideologies which, even if themselves non-violent, can be used by individuals seeking to commit or promote violent actions.

A developing strand of our work will focus on the role education can play in countering extremist ideologies. Since it was first established in 1934, the British Council has had a focus on the Middle East region and will have a key role to play in this area. It is already working closely with partners such as the Al Azhar University in Egypt, on a project which helps improve the English language skills of Islamic Studies students so they can promote moderate Islam and spread real Islamic values.

Our multilateral system will, of course, have a prominent role to play as we develop an international response to the global extremism threat. At their last session in September, the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, including a number of countries from the Middle East and North Africa, agreed to the adoption of a new resolution on countering violent extremism. This resolution highlighted the threat violent extremism poses to the enjoyment of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy, and emphasized the importance of supporting the rights of victims of violent extremism.

The threat of extremism is complex, fast moving and adaptive. We will have to stand together, be agile, strategic and decisive in our action to counter it. From the global terror attacks threatened by Daesh to the pernicious influence of radical extremists online, we must use every option available to us to protect the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.