CVE in Southeast Asia: Australia’s role behind the scenes
Brick wall

National security interests and international obligations are aligned in prompting Australia to do more to legislate against travel in support of terrorism and to counter violent extremism (CVE). Doing so domestically is difficult; effective progress in Southeast Asia will be even harder. What follows is a summary of the challenges and some pointers to opportunities.

Australians joining terrorist organisations such as Islamic State has inspired a legislative flurry from the Government. One purpose of recent and pending legislation is to build barriers that prevent people from traveling to places like Syria to fuel the conflict—and to prevent them from leaving the conflict to spread the fight elsewhere. Australia’s approach is in line with its international responsibilities, notably United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178.

Resolution 2178 builds on previous resolutions and specifically obliges UN member states to establish offences for anyone who recruits, equips, incites, transports, finances, prepares or organises acts of terrorism. There’s a requirement to establish laws to prosecute people traveling or attempting to travel in support of terrorist acts. Furthermore, the Security Council also ‘calls upon’ member states to take CVE measures. This is a lesser obligation than the establishment of criminal offences (the Security Council ‘decides that Member States shall’), but still provides strong encouragement to Australia and the states of Southeast Asia.

Resolution 2178 is a strong brick in a leaky wall. Progress in Southeast Asia will be a major challenge. Regional rhetoric has been politically powerful but legislation is lagging. Governments’ powers and will to prevent such travel vary tremendously from country to country. It appears that hundreds of people have travelled from Southeast Asia to fight with Islamic State, just as previous generations took an interest in the Afghan war. There’s a big risk that history repeats itself, but not as farce: it’s highly likely that some experienced and motivated terrorist cells will return to Australia’s nearby neighbours and prepare attacks.

A survey of national legislation gauged against 2178 shows common, wide holes for terrorists to fly through. In terms of risks, the most important countries in the region are Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In terms of their implementation of the legislative requirements of Resolution 2178, these countries span a spectrum. At one end there are strong legislative foundations; at the other, law enforcement officials are severely limited in their powers. Australia has moved to offer assistance to legislative drafting. This is useful but will only become relevant once the government and society in each country is ready to join Australia. It’s therefore important to contribute to non-government networks advancing local debates towards legislative change, who can take into account valid human rights concerns and invalid support for violent extremism. This highlights the harder challenge of CVE in its broader sense.

The Australian Government has generally absorbed the lesson that it cannot ‘lead’ CVE efforts in the region. The battle will be won or lost by elite and grassroots coalitions in each country. Supporters from Australia are not generals in the fight, but more like specialist logisticians delivering funds and advice behind the scenes. For Australia to contribute to the strategy and provide some critical supplies, there’s a need for careful analysis and careful selection of points of intervention. That means strong involvement in the field from political officers and development planners, with connections to local coalitions.

Members of coalitions can be motivated by narrow interests, such as tourism operators protecting their revenue streams. Cobbling together such interests is useful, but insufficient in the medium term. Ultimately, local coalitions will need to be inspired by a more principled desire to advance their way of life and defend their communities’ cohesion against violent extremists. Strengthening that inspiration is a broad goal. For Australia, the challenge is choosing how to influence it.

The good news is that Australia already has multiple tools to do so. Aid, education exchanges, business investment and public communications can all be helpful. The bad news is that few of these tools have been calibrated and sharpened for CVE effect. As Anthony Bergin and Sarah Hately have suggested, there are opportunities to examine more effectively how our international aid impacts on CVE interests. The same applies to business activities, labour migration and communications campaigns. Understanding these interactions in Southeast Asia will illuminate pathways to progress in protecting locals and Australians, increasing resilience to violent extremism—and implementing Resolution 2178. Legislative walls will be part of the puzzle, but they will only work if they’re built with willing hands.