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9 May, 2016

How will travel & tourism respond to the “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism”?

The most important takeaway from UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism is that it is an admission of failure.

Fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it tacitly admits that all the security apparatus that has been thrown at addressing violent extremism and terrorism, such as extra-judicial killings, drone strikes, visa restrictions, sanctions, mass surveillance, racial profiling, etc, etc, have failed. Trillions of dollars have been wasted, which could have been far better spent more productively on building schools, hospitals and meeting the targets of the former Millennium Development Goals.

Worse still, no-one has been held accountable.

Mr. Ban is now nearing the end of his term and has no more reason to fear being ousted or a backlash from those who may be upset. Instead, he is now seeking to shape his place in history. A climate change agreement to alleviate global warming may have been reached in Paris under his watch but he is still a long way from addressing what I have referred to as the “other global warming.”

This is the second of a unique new column known as “The Irritant” designed to pose questions which challenge the way the travel & tourism industry thinks.

Why “The Irritant”? Click here.

Click here to read previous columns.

A careful read through the Plan of Action will show that the word “prevent” in all its variations appears 60 times, “balance” six times, “justice” 10 times, and “accountability” nine times. In effect, Mr. Ban is admitting an imbalance in the various strategies to deal with violent extremism. Noting that “violent extremism does not arise in a vacuum,” he repeatedly cites the need to look at the challenge in a broader, comprehensive context.

Says Mr. Ban, “I have consistently called for the balanced implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. While we need to continue our concerted efforts to counter violent extremism, we have to broaden our responses, engage earlier and address the drivers of violent extremism. We need to complement the countering of violent extremism with preventive measures. Making prevention an integral part of our comprehensive approach will help us tackle many of the underlying conditions that drive individuals to join violent extremist groups. As with the practice of prevention more generally, results may not be visible immediately and will require our long-term and patient engagement.”

He adds, “My recommendations identify actions that can be taken at the global, national and regional levels with a view to promoting a comprehensive and balanced implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.”

At least two references show that the travel & tourism sector’s approach to tackling safety & security issues over the last 15 years has been excessively skewed towards Pillar 2.

The first is with reference to racial profiling. Says Mr. Ban, “Governments that exhibit repressive and heavy-handed security responses in violation of human rights and the rule of law, such as profiling of certain populations, adoption of intrusive surveillance techniques and prolongation of declared states of emergency, tend to generate more violent extremists. International partners that are complicit in such action by States further corrupt public faith in the legitimacy of the wider international system.”

The second is the reference to “Prolonged and Unresolved Conflicts” as a driver of extremism. These conflicts, Mr. Ban says, “tend to provide fertile ground for violent extremism, not only because of the suffering and lack of governance resulting from the conflict itself but also because such conflicts allow violent extremist groups to exploit deep-rooted grievances in order to garner support and seize territory and resources and control populations. Urgent measures must be taken to resolve protracted conflicts.”

Both references are of direct relevance to the travel & tourism industry. Racial profiling against Muslims has been widespread and systemic, especially in the United States, Europe and Australia. And the reference to prolonged and unresolved conflicts points directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world’s longest unresolved conflict, which has triggered more terrorism and violent extremism by both Jews and Muslims than any other conflict in history.

If these factors have now been officially cited as potential drivers of violent extremism, the very logical question that comes up is how the travel & tourism industry, which claims to be a primary target and victim of violent extremism, is going to respond.

Let the record show that travel & tourism institutions, organisations and associations are guilty of Mr. Ban’s view of an imbalanced focus on Pillar 2 of the counter-terrorism strategy and too little focus on Pillars 1 and 4. A cursory examination of the speeches, public statements and presentations of apex industry groupings such as the UN World Tourism Organisation, World Travel & Tourism Council, the Pacific Asia Travel Association and others, will show virtually no mention of words such as prevent, balanced, comprehensive, justice and accountability in addressing safety and security challenges.

Perhaps the most recent example would be the WTTC summit in Dallas, Texas, in April 2016. Nothing in the programme or the speeches posted on the website indicates that the WTTC has any new ideas to offer except the traditional diet of condemnations alongside calls for more security measures, albeit in a way that allows tourism to keep flowing.

The same with the upcoming Executive Council meeting of the UNWTO due to start in Madrid today (9 May 2016). In his report on the UNWTO’s Priorities and Management Vision, UNWTO Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai cites promoting safe and seamless travel as his Number One priority. He notes that the “tourism sector is increasingly affected by safety and security concerns and risks while a growing number of destinations face the impact of natural and man-made crises which threaten the sector and its benefits. Security concerns may, on the other hand, impact the recent advances registered in travel facilitation around the world.”

His suggested response: “Priority should be given to activities that promote the inclusion of tourism into the national, regional and international safety and security agenda, crisis preparedness and management including crisis communications while ensuring increased ease of travel in terms of both visa facilitation and connectivity.”

That, unfortunately, is exactly in line with Mr. Ban’s contention: Too much focus on Pillar 2 and not enough on Pillars 1 and 4. The Plan of Action does not figure anywhere in the equation.

The Plan now raises some basic questions which could irritate the industry leadership. But that is the theme of this column, The Irritant. Here are the questions:

  • Why has the travel & tourism failed to see what is so obvious – that safety and security concerns arising from violent extremism do not exist in a vacuum? That addressing merely the symptoms and not the cause has never been a sustainable solution? Does it reflect a failure of leadership and lack of moral courage?
  • The Plan calls for the creation of national and regional plans based on a balanced, comprehensive approach. Will travel & tourism come up with one of its own? The UNWTO will be holding first summit on the role of Tourism in Peace and Development in China in mid-June. Will it take up this challenge?
  • Will travel & tourism refocus its conference agendas and balance the space given to security experts and crisis management gurus by giving equal time and space to those who can also highlight the role of justice, accountability, human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, drone strikes, visa restrictions, sanctions, mass surveillance, racial profiling as drivers of violent extremism?
  • Will travel & tourism have the courage to seek accountability from those who should and must be held accountable for flawed policies and responses of the past?
  • What can/will/should travel & tourism do to protest incidents of racial profiling and end protracted and unresolved conflicts, and hence walk the talk of being an Industry of Peace?


Is it about time for Travel & Tourism to focus on causes rather than symptoms of violent extremism?

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