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Commit2Dialogue: Partnerships for Prevention and Sustaining Peace

Plenary session 2, 20 November 2018: "Words Matter: Role and Responsibility of the media in shaping public perceptions about migrants and refugees and promoting inclusive societies”

I am happy to be here today

Hate crimes against migrants are an especially unpleasant manifestation of what I see as an almost global backlash against human rights.

We have seen time and again how migrants, refugees and minorities associated with migration are often the first to be singled out with hateful words and brutal actions, often when the fortunes of a society are shaken and an easy scapegoat is needed, and when cynically populist leaders and media see a cheap political gain. The damage to society is huge.

Hate crime has reached unprecedented levels globally and parts of the media bears significant responsibility for this.

Here in the US, the number of hate crimes has been on the rise in the 10 largest cities for four straight years to the highest level in a decade, with race and religion being the most common motives . The American trend is mirrored by figures from the UK, which last year reported a rise of 29% of reported hate crimes compared to figures from the previous year .

In Europe more broadly, a recent report by the EU Commission identified ethnic origin as the most common ground for hate speech, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees . The EU Commissioner for Justice pointed to the particular responsibility of the media in becoming an instrument for such hatred.

Other regions also show discouraging signs: Derogatory language and racist mockery about black African migrants is common on Middle Eastern TV-shows; disparaging rumors about Venezuelan migrants in Latin America have caused local populations to meet them with hostility and in some cases even violence, and in the Dominican Republic Haitian migrants are still sometimes portrayed as animals and enemies of the nation .

Anti-migrant discourse in the media and in the political sphere has become commonplace. Migrants are demonised, vilified and used as scapegoats for deep-rooted fears about terrorism, crime, unemployment, welfare systems, and the uncertainties of globalization. We have recently seen how not just traditional news outlets but also social media platforms have been used to sow hatred against migrants and minorities, including the Rohingya in Myanmar, with devastating consequences.

In Europe and in the US, a constant sense of crisis is being invoked. We speak about “the highest numbers of people on the move” when, in fact, migrants still only make up around 3% of the population; proportionately this figure has remained the same for some 70 years. The so-called migration crisis is more the product of perception than of numbers. Yet this same sense of crisis is used to justify wildly disproportionate migration management responses such as militarising border control, criminalising undocumented migration, separating tiny children from their mothers, and whipping up fear and hatred of migrants.

At the same time, however some important momentum has also been achieved in resisting rising violence and hate speech against migrants and ethnic and religious minorities. Following pressure from several European governments, social media companies are being pushed to do more to prevent extremist content online and across the globe, and anti-hate crime and human rights activists are mobilising . In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2016, all Member States strongly condemned acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees and migrants, and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief.

The New York Declaration paved the way for the Global Compact for Safe, orderly and Regular Migration, which will be adopted by UN member States in Morocco in December. The Global Compact is the first intergovernmental agreement to address the issue of migration in all its complexity and is at its core a human rights-based document. Specifically, governments have committed to condemn and counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants, and to instead promote an open and evidence-based public discourse on migration and migrants in partnership with all parts of society .

In its Objective 17, the Global Compact commits States and other stakeholders to promote quality reporting by media outlets of migration-related issues and terminology, to investing in ethical reporting standards and advertising, and to stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination against migrants. These are crucial points we all need to build on.

In order to distinguish free speech from hate speech, the UN Human Rights Office has provided practical guidance through the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of incitement to hatred . It outlines a six-part test that looks into the context of the statement, the speaker’s position and intent, the content and extent of the speech, as well as the likelihood that the speech would incite action against the target group. In countries like Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco, national authorities have used this test for audio-visual communication, just as it has been picked up by civil society, for instance the UK civil society campaign “Stop Funding Hate”, which seeks to persuade advertisers to pull their support from media publications that spread hate and division against migrants and minorities.

The Rabat Plan of Action includes an explicit reference to media, as one of the key actors which plays a key role in broadcasting responsible and balanced messages which reach a wide audience. The Rabat Plan of Action moreover refers to the guidance and definitions provided in the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality. While these principles spell out the human rights obligations of States, they also stress the role of other stakeholders, mainly from a self-regulatory perspective. For example, all media should – not as a legal obligation, but rather as a moral and social responsibility – consider reporting on different communities and giving their members the opportunity to be heard in a way that promotes a better understanding of them.

However, laws and other State measures against “hate speech” must not lead to stifling dissent or critical remarks against the Government or religious authorities. The UN Human Rights Committee has emphasized that domestic laws must not prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression has criticized the continued use of flawed domestic laws purporting to combat “hate speech” but which are in reality used to suppress critical voices and opposition.

Through these and other measures, the UN’s Human Rights Office and international human rights mechanisms assist States in upholding their obligations to counter discriminatory and xenophobic narratives. Moreover, the office also seeks to engage more directly with public narratives on migration in order to contribute to a more principled, and inclusive discourse. Through continuous engagement with a range of key stakeholders including migrant communities, the vital role of storytelling has been highlighted, and last year OHCHR launched the campaign ‘Stand Up For Migrants’. Through a series of animated videos shared on social media, we sought to amplify the voices stories of migrants and their families, of the communities that welcome them and the conversations they have along the way. We know that policies that affect the lives of migrants are better and more sustainable when they are based on facts and evidence. But we also know that a more rational debate about migration requires not just evidence, it must also reflect emotions, empathy and values.

It is clear to us all that many media outlets are deliberately failing to promote the concept of common humanity. Words obviously do matter: dehumanising racist rhetoric frequently leads to hatred, tensions, violence and conflict. It requires a greater effort from the international community to confront those in the media who seek to stir up hatred. The Alliance of Civilisations is very well-placed to take up this challenge, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak today.

Thank you for your attention.