Vienna (Austria), 10 February 2023 — Violent extremism represents a serious threat to international peace and security, an avenue for the vulnerable to be exploited, and a source of untold suffering for victims and survivors. It is a global danger and combatting it takes a global effort.
While inexcusable, violent extremism does not happen in a vacuum. Root causes must be identified, conditions addressed, and, crucially, justifications for violence must be delegitimized.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly has declared 12 February the International Day for the Prevention of Violent Extremism as and when Conducive to Terrorism. This day aims to raise awareness of the danger that violent extremism presents and promote international cooperation in combatting this threat.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as part of its mandate, supports global efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. As part of its work, UNODC has partnered with the Victims’ Voices Initiative.
Victims´ Voices was started in 2013 to allow victims of terrorism to share their unique experiences and promote peace. UNODC spoke to its co-founder Max Boon – himself a survivor of a suicide bombing in Jakarta – about his story, the work of the initiative, the future for victim-centred approaches, and what we can all do to help combat violent extremism.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are the survivor of a terrorist attack yourself. How has that experience changed you?
I lost my legs as a result of the 2009 JW Marriott hotel suicide bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was fortunate that social security in my home country of the Netherlands gave me the opportunity to learn how to walk on prosthetic legs, which took three years to master. I’ve not needed a wheelchair since 2012. Beyond that, I don’t think I’ve changed much as a person. I’ve always been too stubborn to give up, a trait that probably was key to my recovery.
Can you explain the Victims’ Voices Initiative in detail?
Victims’ Voices started in Indonesia in 2013, when after the bombing I partnered with a group of community organizers and academics. Through a local grassroots organization, the initiative has brought together more than 60 victims and over ten former terrorists, who share their respective stories in various settings to a public audience.
The initiative’s aim is to show the heavy human toll that terrorism and violent extremism takes on society, thereby diminishing support for violent extremist ideologies. Since its inception, the initiative has engaged with over 25,000 school students, more than 5,000 university students, and about 3,000 religious leaders and their communities.
How can victims of terrorism become agents to prevent violent extremism?
First and foremost, they need their rights as victims to be fulfilled. We can’t expect anyone to dedicate their time to preventing violent extremism if they are still hungry, in pain or traumatized. Beyond that, victims of terrorism weren’t chosen for their abilities to become messengers for peace. They are a very diverse group, of people who were often targeted at random, who need to be empowered to become agents of prevention of violent extremism. They need to be given help to organize themselves and the skills to effectively convey their stories to the target audiences, putting a human face to what for many is a very abstract concept.
What have been the initiative’s main achievements in terms of preventing violent extremism?
It is impossible to prove that our initiative has or hasn’t been able to prevent actual acts of extremist violence. We’ll never know whether youths would have become violent extremists if we hadn’t engaged with them. What we can measure is how attitudes towards the use of violence change as a result of our interventions. To give just one example, out of a total of 1,925 students who initially agreed, when the initiative began, that they had to avenge the persecution of their fellows by force or with violence, 1,272 now disagree. This represents a 66 per cent decrease in violent attitudes that we have measured since Victims’ Voices started.
What is the future of the Victims’ Voices Initiative? Where is this model being replicated?
We hope to continue our work in Indonesia, as there’s still a lot of ground to cover. We were fortunate to partner with UNODC and the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism for the 2020 publication From Victims of Terrorism to Messengers for Peace: A Strategic Approach, which hopes to inspire governments and civil society organizations alike to consider setting up similar initiatives by sharing the main lessons learned in Indonesia.
Furthermore, since 2021, we have done preliminary investigations on the feasibility of partnering with local stakeholders in Bangladesh, Belgium, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tunisia. In 2022 this led to a well-received training of a group of Belgian victims of terrorism and community organizers, and we hope to conduct a scoping mission to Kenya in 2023.
What recommendations do you have for governments around the world wishing to support victims of terrorism who want to get involved in countering violent extremism?
We have learned first-hand in peacebuilding endeavours the importance of empowering victims through independent platforms. This not only retains victims’ credibility amongst target audiences, but it also gives them agency, rather than risk their instrumentalization by governments. Most importantly, it is essential to prevent victims from feeling like fulfilment of their rights is conditioned upon their participation in government-organized efforts to counter violent extremism. The rights of victims of terrorism should be unconditional and guaranteed.
What simple things can each of us do to contribute to preventing terrorism?
A tit-for-tat approach rarely leads to net-positive outcomes. No matter how big the issue, insult or injustice, choosing to let go, forgive or accept will, more often than not, prevent matters from spinning out of control. Otherwise, the ultimate outcome of revenge is the potential of violence.
This won’t, in our everyday lives, immediately contribute to preventing terrorism. But it will allow for a more magnanimous culture, which is a basic building block against polarization towards extremes.