UN chief Antonio Guterres calls on International community to step up response to check hate speech

United Nations: With digital technology providing new channels for hate speech to grow and reach to wider audiences at lightning speed, UN chief Antonio Guterres has called on the international community to step up its response to combat acts of hatred and xenophobia.

The UN secretary-general was speaking on Tuesday during the launch of the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action aimed at enhancing global efforts to address the root causes of hate speech and enabling the world body to effectively respond to its impact on societies.

Voicing deep concern about growing xenophobia, racism, intolerance, violent misogyny, anti-semitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world, he asserted that over the past 75 years, hate speech has been the precursor to crimes like Easter Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka, attacks in New Zealand, the US and incidents of genocide in countries like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia.

“Governments and technology companies alike are struggling to prevent and respond to orchestrated online hate, he said.

Guterres called on the international community to control hate speech as new channels for it are reaching wider audiences than ever at lightning speed.

While digital technology has provided new areas in which hate speech can thrive, it can also help to monitor activity, target our response and build support for counter-narratives, he said, adding that the recent emergence of volunteer groups that are organising to counter harassment and hate online shows the potential for collaboration.

The proposals set out last week by the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation can play a part. New forms of self-policing by social media platforms and the commitments included in the Christchurch Call, are another welcome development, he said.

Talking about the “ambitious programme”, he said it is an initiative to coordinate efforts across the UN system to “identify, prevent and confront hate speech, using all the means in our power.” 

It aims to enhance efforts to address the root causes of hate speech and to enable the United Nations to respond effectively to the impact of hate speech on societies, he said.

Hateful and destructive views are enabled and amplified exponentially through digital technology, often targeting women, minorities, and the most vulnerable. Extremists gather online and radicalize new recruits,” he said.

It is unfortunate that both in liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, “we see some political leaders, to a certain extent, mainstreaming what has been, until now, particularly the expression of extremist groups and, with that, undermining the social cohesion of their societies. And I believe that we have seen it in some recent electoral campaigns, he said without naming any country.

On naming political leaders encouraging hate speech, he said, my objective today is not to name or shame any individual, because, unfortunately, we are dealing with something that has spread very widely, and I think we need to be conscious that we are facing a massive phenomenon,” 

“I think that, if I name and shame, the only thing that would be broadcasted would be the naming and shaming, and what I want is the substance of the issue to be dealt with. So, it’s a strategy that I have been applying and I intend to go on applying whenever it makes sense. 

While the UN is addressing many of these issues as it supports governments in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Guterres said the new strategy goes further , recommending a coordinated response, including efforts to identify those who engage in hate speech, and those who are best placed to challenge it. 

The strategy promotes education as a preventive tool that can raise awareness and bring about a shared sense of common purpose to address the seeds of hatred, he said.

The recommendations include convening individuals and groups with opposing views, working with traditional and social media platforms, engaging in advocacy and developing guidance for communications to counter hate speech trends and campaigns. 

Guterres said he intends to convene a conference on the role of education in addressing and building resilience against hate speech. 

Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law, he said.

We should treat it like any other malicious act: by condemning it unconditionally, refusing to amplify it, countering it with the truth, and encouraging the perpetrators to change their behaviour, he said.

Such actions will not only prevent hate speech from escalating, it will support progress across our entire agenda, from preventing conflict and terrorism, to ending violence against women and other serious violations of human rights, to building peaceful and resilient societies, he said. 

Hate speech may have gained a foothold. But it is now on notice, and we will never stop confronting it, he said.

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