UN holds day to counter hate speech, seeks freedom of expression
In commemoration of the maiden edition of International Day to Counter hate speech, United Nations (UN) has cautioned against trampling on freedom of speech and expression, noting that when speech is weaponised to violate the rights of others, it must not be met with deafening silence.
According to UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, hatred is a danger to everybody – and so, fighting it must be a job for everyone.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed about 800,000 lives was caused by hate speech.
In July 2021, the UN General Assembly highlighted global concerns over “the exponential spread and proliferation of hate speech” around the world and adopted a resolution on “promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech.”
The resolution recognises the need to counter discrimination, xenophobia and hate speech and urged all relevant actors, including states, to increase their efforts to address hate speech, in line with international human rights law. The resolution proclaimed June 18, as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech, which was marked for the first time this year.
At a symposium held at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Abuja last weekend, the need to promote freedom of expression was re-echoed.
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Matthias Schmale, noted that if left unchecked, hate speech could harm peace and development.
Represented by the Human Rights Advisor, UN Nigeria, Ms Adwoa Kufuor-Owusu, he pointed out that hate speech also lay the ground for conflicts and tensions, undermines social cohesion and contributes to wide-scale human rights violations and crimes.
With the theme, ‘Together, we are stronger, he said, “the United Nations considers hate speech as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”
Hate speech, he explained, contradicts all the values and principles enshrined in international human rights law. He said it also undermines efforts to achieve the aim of Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to leave no one behind, as it often targets the most vulnerable in our societies and minorities.
To him, the devastating effect of hatred is not new, noting that new technologies of communication have amplified the scale and impact of hate speech.
Schmale said social media and the Internet are now the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale.
He insisted that silence implies apathy and even acceptance, suggesting, that “we must be vigilant when we notice a rise in hate speech around us.”
Speaking on what the UN is doing about hate speech in the country, Schmale revealed, “we are working with multiple stakeholders to promote tolerance. UNESCO is leading the way through its efforts to promote Media and Information Literacy (MIL). We are also currently developing an UN-wide Hate Speech Strategy. We count on your support in ensuring the strategy will be translated into effective action.”
In his speech, the Executive Secretary of NHRC, Chief Tony Ojukwu (SAN), observed that the run up to general elections in Nigeria is usually characterised by the blatant use of provocative, strong, and derogatory hate speeches by political actors and persons who are inclined to their political interests.
He said these speeches have raised strong feelings of resentment typified by religious and ethnic/tribal negative labelling among the people.
Ojukwu argued that frequent use of hate speech in Nigeria has a devastating effect on sustainable peace, national cohesion, the dignity of the human person, peace and development in our country.
To him, hate speeches are not peculiar to Nigeria, noting, “it has become a strong tool in the hands of persons with divisive tendencies before, during and after elections. Their aim is to insult and ridicule perceived opponents of political parties and aspirants and thereby incite electoral violence leading to loss of lives and destruction of properties.”
He added that it is unfortunate that the menace has also crept into places of worship whereupon some religious leaders have joined the foray of spreading hate speeches.
According to him, “what is more worrisome is the uncontrolled use or misuse of the media, especially the social media to spread hate messages in Nigeria.”
National Information Officer United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), Dr. Oluseyi Soremekun said, “this first UN system-wide initiative designed to tackle hate speech provides an essential framework for how the organisation can support and complement States’ efforts.”
He said the strategy emphasises the need to counter hate holistically and with full respect for freedom of opinion and expression while working in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including civil society organisations, media outlets, tech companies and social media platforms.
Other speakers at the function include Executive Director of CLEEN Foundation, Ms Ruth Olofin; Special Assistant to the NHRC Executive Secretary, Barrister Benedict Agu; Representative of YIAGA, Ibrahim Faruk.