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Written Contribution by M. Mutuma RUTEERE, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to the Seminar on “Preventing incitement to atrocity crimes: policy options for action” (21-22 February 2013, Geneva, Switzerland)

United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

Panel 1: Prevention, coping strategies and appropriate response to atrocity crimes incitement

 Geneva, 22 February 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me first to express my gratitude to the organisers for their invitation and for the opportunity to provide written inputs to this meeting. I apologise for not to being able to participate physically due to prior commitments and I am very grateful to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Heiner Bielefeldt for having kindly agreed to read the statement on my behalf.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In different parts of the world as well as at the international level, considerable progress has been made over the years in addressing the problems of racism, racial discrimination and incitement to racial, ethnic and xenophobic violence. Nevertheless, recent conflicts and crises highlight the continuing challenges posed by inciting speech to the rights of targeted groups and to peace, particularly in ethnically diverse countries. The manipulation of race, ethnic origin and religion, and the instrumentalization of the concept of national unity or national identity for political purposes have been highlighted by studies by my predecessors.

State members of the UN through the General Assembly have committed themselves to addressing the problem. The UN General Assembly has noted that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) means that:  “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it.”

Prevention Measures and Strategies

In my first report to the Human Rights Council, I highlighted the centrality of prevention in combating racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. This prevention agenda flows from the provisions of the Durban Declaration which has pointed out that one of the main obstacles in overcoming racial discrimination and achieving racial equality is the prevalence of racist attitudes and negative stereotyping. It is also premised on the understanding that incitement to atrocities on the basis of race or ethnicity usually draws from ideas of racial and ethnic superiority and the negative stereotyping and stigmatization of individuals and groups.

In a number of contemporary armed conflicts atrocities against individuals or groups of individuals have been fuelled by such stigmatization on the basis of their ethnicity and race. For instance in the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, racial and ethnic stereotypes were exploited and violence directed against individuals on ethnic and racial lines. The  construction of national identities where some groups as  designated as “others” and “outsiders” to be  excluded from the full enjoyment of human rights, as was the case in the Ivory Coast, is part of this infrastructure of ideas that needs to be dismantled.

I have pointed out in my reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly that it is important to bear in mind how contexts such as economic crises and the problems of terrorism and counter-terrorism, continue to shape popular and official attitudes and opinions regarding individuals of particular ethnic or racial background. 

In my opinion, a robust and comprehensive prevention of incitement agenda must address these ideas of racial and ethnic superiority, stereotyping and stigmatization. I elaborate on a number of measures that would be part of a comprehensive strategy of prevention.

Education

The Special Rapporteur on the right to education has noted that education is embedded in the existing values but also helps create new values and attitudes. Specifically, it is important that school systems, whether private or public reflect the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of the society, are inclusive in their policies, prescribe unbiased schoolbooks, promote  the teaching of classes which  include the history and positive contribution of  minorities, their cultures, languages and traditions and ensure that teachers are trained to promote diversity, inclusion and tolerance.

Media

The media is also central to any comprehensive prevention strategy. The role of the media in inciting the extermination of particular groups has been well documented, particularly in the case of the Rwanda genocide. Successful mobilization of racial and ethnic hatred as well as incitement to atrocities to a large extent relies on media platforms.

Protection of media freedom is not inconsistent with policy and legislative measures to ensure that groups are not stigmatized or scapegoated through the media. Like all institutions, the media also has responsibilities in a free and democratic society. Part of that responsibility is to ensure that in their coverage and reporting, stereotypes about particular groups are not propagated as fact. It is also the responsibility of the media to ensure that the diversity of the society is reflected both in terms of its personnel and in terms of the news or opinion content.

Training of the media personnel on human rights, diversity and ethical responsibilities are also key to confronting stigmatization as well as the exploitation of the media to incite atrocities.

In my view, the media holds one of the keys in preventing incitement given its immense influence in shaping attitudes and opinions. It is therefore important that any comprehensive state strategies to prevent incitement incorporate the media as a central partner and not just as a target for regulation or sanctions.

New Information Technologies

In my reports to both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, I have underscored the important role of the new information technologies and the internet in particular, in preventing incitement to racial discrimination and ethnic violence. The Internet has unlocked unprecedented opportunities for communication globally while at the same time providing the infrastructure for propagation of racial and ethnic hatred, and incitement and mobilization for racial and ethnic violence.

The convergence of digital technology with old print and broadcast technologies has widened the reach for the media but also presented new challenges to the regulation of content. The old rules on what newspapers can and cannot print, for instance, are often rendered irrelevant by the fact that individuals can freely comment in the digital versions of online newspapers. Although there are efforts and many good practices in regulating such online conversations, in a large number of cases, these forums are also platforms for promotion of racial and ethnic hatred, stereotypes and the ideas of racial and ethnic superiority.

Moreover, the Internet has emerged as a popular tool for recruitment and mobilization by extremist groups dedicated to promotion and incitement of racial and ethnic hatred. There are many legal, regulatory and technical challenges to combating incitement to atrocities via the Internet. However, there are good practices from different parts of the world on how to address these challenges. The role of national human rights institutions and similar institutions in providing awareness on the challenges as well as in helping design context-relevant solutions is particularly useful. Investment in the capacities of such institutions in addressing the problem of incitement through the Internet is therefore important as part of a prevention strategy.

In addition, promoting diversity of voices and conversations on the Internet is crucial in preventing the incitement for atrocities. The view that good speech is the antidote for harmful speech also applies to the digital sphere. It is important to remember that given the insidious intersection of poverty and discrimination, the likely victims of incitement to racial discrimination and ethnic violence are more likely to lag behind in digital connectivity and access to the Internet. The absence of their voices in digital conversations leaves the harmful ideas of racial and ethnic superiority and hatred unchallenged. It is therefore important that States adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all to counter the dissemination of ideas based on racial and ethnic superiority or hatred; to promote equality, non-discrimination and diversity; to improve mutual understanding; and to build a culture of peace.

Impunity

In thinking about prevention of atrocities, enforcement of laws and combating impunity for acts of incitement is an important component. Indeed, no comprehensive prevention strategy can be effective if it omits the aspect of enforcement. To this end, it is important that states ensure that incitement to ethnic or racial hatred and violence are offences punishable under their laws and that those who incite others are prosecuted and punished as per the law.

Data, statistics and research on the problem of incitement to these atrocities are also key to any strategy of prevention. Data is important to guide policy and also as part of the metrics for assessing implementation. State agencies such as the police and prosecuting agencies should be encouraged to collect data that can provide insights into prevalence of the problems of incitement as well as the nature of actions taken to address the problem.

My team from the Secretariat who is following this meeting will be happy to take note of any question and comment you may have and transmit them to me.

I thank you for your attention.