UN genocide prevention official warns of hate speech’s sweeping threat to individuals, societies

UNITED NATIONS   -   The UN’s top genocide prevention official has warned that hate speech remains a significant threat to global peace and security, often targeting society’s most vulnerable.

Alice Nderitu, Special Adviser of the Secretary on the Prevention of Genocide, emphasized that in addition to violence, hate speech also reinforces discrimination, stigma, dehumanization, and marginalization.

“Violence does not start when physical attacks are launched. Violence often starts with words. Words of hatred spread intolerance, divide societies, promote and endorse discrimination and incite violence,” she told the UN Security Council on Friday.

Although she did not specific areas where the threat existed, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ordered Israel  to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza.  

And,  Genocide Watch,  an international watchdog group, has warned that the Hindu nationalist policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have worsened anti-Muslim violence and caste oppression in India. Of particular concern, it said, are the situations in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam , with cow protection laws used as pretexts for lynching, as also anti-Muslim citizenship laws. Ms. Nderitu, the genocide official’s briefing to the 15-member Council was presented in the context of resolution 2686, adopted unanimously in June 2023, on tolerance and international peace and security.

In the resolution, the Security Council urged UN Member States to condemn and prevent hate speech, extremism, and violence, and encouraged the promotion of tolerance, intercultural dialogue, women’s participation, social cohesion, quality education, and peace initiatives.

It also requested feedback on the spread of hate speech and timely reporting. In ongoing crises or conflict situations, hate speech intensifies existing tensions and vulnerabilities, she said. Ms. Nderitu warned that combined with disinformation, hate speech entrenches divisions and poses direct threats to civilians, potentially leading to severe crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Combined with disinformation, hate speech entrenches divisions and poses direct threats to civilians In addition, the proliferation of social media use has exacerbated the reach and impact of hate speech, she added.

Such divisive, misleading and hateful narratives enable hate speech to spread rapidly and reach distant audiences, thus increasing the potential for offline harm. “The widespread use of social media … is allowing hate speech to be employed by anyone, reaching quicker distant audiences, and hence increasing the potential for offline harm. Minorities are particularly targeted. And so are women, especially those in public space,” Ms. Nderitu warned.

At the same time, tackling hate speech should never be used to stifle freedom of expression, she stressed. “Blanket restrictions, bans and internet shutdowns are not the solution and may violate human rights, including freedom of expression. They may also silence the actors working to stand up against hate speech including civil society, human rights defenders, and journalists.”

The Special Adviser stressed the UN’s commitment to raising awareness about the dangers of hate speech and addressing its impacts, drivers, and root causes.

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech provides a comprehensive framework for addressing the scourge in line with international human rights standards, she said, outlining its various tools, including dialogue, education, and promoting social cohesion and peace.

“The Strategy is being employed across the UN system, especially in the field, to support national actors, including Member States, who have the primary responsibility in addressing hate speech,” she added.

Ms. Nderitu said since the Council resolution passed, several UN peacekeeping operations have monitored and prioritized counter measures, including against gender-based hate speech.

“Tackling hate speech is complex and requires dedicated attention and support,” she said, calling for continued political commitment and support from the Security Council as well as urging Member States to develop national action plans rooted in human rights and civilian protection.

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