On 19 October 2015, justice ministers, judges, prosecutors, prison officials and other experts met in Brussels for a high-level conference dedicated to the criminal justice response to radicalisation. This conference, organised by the European Commission and the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the EU, was aimed at facilitating an exchange of views on responses to the phenomenon of radicalisation, notably in prisons.
Among the experts present, a number of them were members of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), created in 2011, which brings together experts and practitioners in the area of radicalisation and violent extremism prevention throughout Europe.
The aim of the conference was to discuss and exchange views on the solutions which have been tried and tested successfully, both to stop those wishing to join Daesh and to act on those fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, and for which it is necessary to make an assessment of the risk they pose to society. Vera Jourova, Commissioner for Justice, also mentioned this in her opening remarks. How to reconcile prison and de-radicalisation, how to implement prevention, rehabilitation and the repression on radicalisation, how to best detect the early signs of radicalisation? These were the kinds of questions debated throughout the day.
"Violent extremism attacks the very foundations of our democratic society"
"Violent extremism attacks the very foundations of our democratic society", stressed Luxembourg's Justice Minister, Félix Braz, in his introduction. As he pointed out, radicalisation, terrorism and foreign fighters are nothing new, but it is the scale of this phenomenon and context which are currently different.
"The response that comes has to be embedded in the criminal justice systems and must obey to the rule of law", insisted the Minister during the press conference which followed the conference's first session.
Knowing how "to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism" and "how to deal with foreign fighters" were some of the recurrent questions on the agenda of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, stated the Minister who currently heads the Council group. Rehabilitation appears to be a priority for Justice Ministers, said Félix Braz to the press.
Including the objective of rehabilitation in the criminal justice response, by exploring the options offered by the different European legal systems to deal with foreign fighters, returnees, as well as violent religious extremists with terrorist motivations, was one of the objectives of the conference, the conclusions of which will be presented to the Justice and Home Affairs Council in December.
"Often radicalisation appears to be an expression and a reaction of deep resignation, a feeling of rejection, (...) as a rebellion against the authorities often perceived as unfair or as a quest for identity, (...), a quest for strong ideals and symbols of power defying a world that may have lost credible identification figures and ethical values", explained Félix Braz.
However, the Minister also warned against making broad generalisations: conversion to a fundamentalist faith does not necessarily lead to terrorism, and radicalisation is not a crime, as opposed to violent extremism and terrorism. Félix Braz thus highlighted how "discussions on radicalisation must encourage us to stand up against Islamophobia" and called for "zero tolerance to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hatred towards Muslims".
"Repression without prevention will not bring the response we need"
"Repression alone will note be sufficient", the Minister emphasised, making reference to the great deal of experience that the European continent has in relation to terrorism and organised crime. Experience which the Minister suggests we can draw lessons from, notably regarding prison and radicalisation. For Félix Braz, the conference's aims were to assess whether the punishments are appropriate and whether alternative sanctions are possible and desirable. "Repression without prevention will not bring the responses we need", he repeated to the press.
Prisons are often presented as a breeding ground for radicalisation and terrorism. However, the Minister pondered about the complex and varied reality which lies behind this commonplace. According to experts, among the thousands of foreign fighters who have gone off to conflict zones, a minority has turned to violent extremism during periods of incarceration, the Minister said.
Félix Braz qualified that prisons are not just a threat, but can also be positive in the fight against radicalisation and terrorism. "They can serve as incubators for peaceful change", the Minister outlined to the press, and explained that detention could be the place for participation in rehabilitation programmes, which allow prisoners "to be reintegrated into society on their release".
"Radicalised prisoners comprises a highly heterogenic population of accomplished terrorists and inoffensive recent converts, of fundamentalist Muslims believers and common criminals ready to leave for Syria, of foreign terrorist fighters and traumatised returnees", Félix Braz explained. He thus called for a more differentiated terminology, for better risk assessment tools and for better adapted strategies.
"We must reform prisons", Félix Braz then went on to say, aware that the poor conditions in prisons, and notably over-crowding, can lead vulnerable prisoners to become radicalised, while the lack of qualified staff can undermine efforts to tackle radicalisation.
Fighting radicalisation must include a more general strategy aimed at tackling the causes of terrorism, argued the Minister, while stressing that such a strategy must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. In his view, imprisonment should be a last resort. "Prevention and detection, prosecution and sentencing, detention and alternative sanctions, probation and rehabilitation are areas in which authorities and stakeholders should cooperate", the Minister said.
Félix Braz went on to stress the fact that academic research and meta-data must "consolidate our strategy" and "enhance the capacity of policymakers and practitioners to design programmes that tackle violent extremism" and respect human rights.
At their breakfast, the 18 Justice Ministers present at the conference insisted on the coordinating role that the Commission must play, reported Félix Braz to the press. The Commission should coordinate the exchange of best practices between Member States, compiling the results of academic research carried out by Member States, and finally facilitate dialogue with third countries on these questions.
The Commission should also expand dialogue with Internet access providers, highlighted Félix Braz in reference to the discussions that the ministers had during the JHA Council on 9 October and following the annual conference on fundamental rights which was held on 1 October. Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, had earlier in the morning announced his willingness to implement before the end of the year an Internet forum with the big players in the sector with the aim of strengthening the collective response to tackling on-line radicalisation. Questioned by a journalist on the difficulty of ensuring freedom of speech by giving Internet access providers responsibility for what was published on-line, Vera Jourova explained that it would be necessary to give them the tools to take on this responsibility. For example, by giving a clear definition of what is considered as "hate speech" by the law.