Secretary-General: World at ‘Acute Moment’ as Anti-Semitic Violence Rises, Hatred Thrives in Digital Space, urging Focus on Social Unity
Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the informal meeting of the General Assembly on “Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Racism and Hate — the Challenges of Teaching Tolerance and Respect in the Digital Age,” in New York on 26 June:
I thank all involved for bringing us together to tackle the tsunami of hatred that is so visible and violent across the world today. A special welcome to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego. Rabbi, thank you for your inspiring actions since the shooting in April that took the life of one of your congregants and injured you as well.
Recently I viewed an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York that is called “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away”. It is an apt title. The Holocaust was indeed not long ago — only as far back as a single average human lifespan. And it is indeed not far away — it happened at the heart of Europe, and it remains at the centre of our awareness as we fight anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance today.
The exhibition documents the propaganda, pseudoscience and vile caricatures that were among the signatures of Hitler’s rule and worldview. Hitler was defeated. Yet anti-Semitism has not been extinguished. Far from it.
A study released last month by Tel Aviv University reported that the number of violent anti-Semitic incidents rose by 13 per cent in 2018 over the year before. In the United States, Europe and elsewhere, attacks on synagogues, graveyards and individuals continue to make many Jews feel insecure. This age-old hatred is showing grim staying power. Moreover, intolerance is a multi-headed monster.
In recent months alone, and in different parts of the world, beyond the attacks on synagogues, we have seen massacres at mosques and bombings at churches. Refugees and migrants continue to face hostility. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are emboldened by elections showing the appeal of their racist messages.
And in today’s digital realm, we have new vectors of venom, algorithms that accelerate the spread of bigotry, and new platforms where far-flung extremists can find each other and spur each other on. The United Nations fights these ills as a matter of our very identity, founded as we were in response to genocide. Today we have reached an acute moment in this struggle.
One week ago, I launched a United Nations system-wide strategy to combat hate speech. Bigoted words can provide the kindling for bigger fires, as we have seen from Rwanda to Myanmar and so many places in between. Hatred left unopposed can erode democratic values, social stability and peace.
We need to treat hate speech as we treat every malicious act: by condemning it and refusing to amplify it. That does not mean limiting 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.
In the wake of recent attacks on places of worship, I have asked the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations to explore what more the United Nations can do to support the safety and sanctity of religious sites. I expect the Action Plan to be ready soon.
Our efforts need to step up most urgently in the digital space, where hatred is thriving. Social media provides a conduit for hatred on an enormous scale, with virtually no cost and no accountability, making them particularly appealing to those with evil intent. And indeed, social media are being used to polarize societies and demonize people, often targeting women, minorities and the most vulnerable.
The High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation that I established last year has just delivered its report, urging social media enterprises to respond to concerns about the “growing threat to safety and human rights”.
The Christchurch Call — a commitment by Governments and leading technology companies to tackle online extremism and incitement to violence — is another important contribution. The United Nations offers a platform where the full range of stakeholders can discuss the way forward.
We need to invest in social cohesion so that all members of society can feel that their identities are respected and that they have a stake in the future. I guarantee you that I will continue to call out anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of hatred — loudly and unapologetically.
In closing, allow me to mention that the exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” — is itself not far away, in lower Manhattan. It is on display through 3 January, and I commend it to all of you as a spur to the action and reflection we need at this time. Thank you.