UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world's nations on Friday to respond to violent extremism with "cool heads and common sense" — not with "mindless policies" that turn people against each other, alienate marginalized groups and play into the hands of the enemy.
The U.N. chief told the U.N. General Assembly that his plan to prevent violent extremism is "an urgent call to unity and action" that asks all 193 U.N. member states to address the causes of violent extremism, listen to the grievances of their people and ensure that human rights and due process aren't trampled.
"Let us never forget: Terrorist groups are not just seeking to unleash violent action, but to provoke a harsh reaction," Ban said. "We all lose by responding to ruthless terror with mindless policy. ... We must never be ruled by fear — or provoked by those who strive to exploit it."
According to the 22-page report outlining the secretary-general's plan, violent extremists have recruited over 30,000 "foreign terrorist fighters" from over 100 countries to travel to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.
Ban stressed Friday that the threat of violent extremism isn't limited to one religion, nationality or ethnic group and that the vast majority of victims worldwide are Muslims.
"Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse," he said.
Ban said countries have every right to defend themselves against the threat of violent extremism using lawful means. He said they also know that "the critical elements" to preventing extremist acts are good governance, the rule of law, political participation, quality education, decent jobs and "full respect for human rights."
The secretary-general urged every country to develop a national plan of action that focuses on these elements as well as on promoting dialogue, engaging communities, and countering media messages that drive people to violent extremism.
"Poisonous ideologies do not emerge from thin air," Ban said. "Oppression, corruption and injustice are greenhouses for resentment. Extremists are adept at cultivating alienation."
He said that's why he has been urging leaders to build institutions that really are accountable to the people, and to address their grievances.
The secretary-general also urged leaders not to fall into the trap of overreacting — which violent extremists deliberately seek.
"Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders," Ban said. "Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one's critics."
He announced that Switzerland and the U.N. are organizing a follow-up international conference in Geneva in April on the plan of action.