In January, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres commissioned "a global plan of action against hate speech and hate crimes on a fast-track basis," and said that governments and institutions need "to mobilize solutions that respond to people's fears and anxieties with answers..." One of those answers, Guterres appeared to suggest, is shutting down free speech. Pictured: Antonio Guterres. (Image source: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
In January, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, tasked his Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, to "present a global plan of action against hate speech and hate crimes on a fast-track basis". Speaking at a press conference about the UN's challenges for 2019, Guterres maintained, "The biggest challenge that governments and institutions face today is to show that we care -- and to mobilize solutions that respond to people's fears and anxieties with answers..."
One of those answers, Guterres appeared to suggest, is shutting down free speech.
"We need to enlist every segment of society in the battle for values that our world faces today – and, in particular, to tackle the rise of hate speech, xenophobia and intolerance. We hear troubling, hateful echoes of eras long past" Guterres said, "Poisonous views are penetrating political debates and polluting the mainstream. Let's never forget the lessons of the 1930s. Hate speech and hate crimes are direct threats to human rights..."
Guterres added, "Words are not enough. We need to be effective in both asserting our universal values and in addressing the root causes of fear, mistrust, anxiety and anger. That is the key to bring people along in defence of those values that are under such grave threat today".
In other words, forget everything about the free exchange of ideas: the UN feels that its 'values' are being threatened and those who criticize those values must therefore be shut down. Not only that, but -- disingenuously -- the UN is comparing dissent from its agendas with the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s.
Now the action plan that Guterres spoke of in January is ready. On June 18, Guterres presented the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech:
"Hate speech is...an attack on tolerance, inclusion, diversity and the very essence of our human rights norms and principles," Guterres said. He also wrote in an article on the subject, "To those who insist on using fear to divide communities, we must say: diversity is a richness, never a threat...We must never forget, after all, that each of us is an "other" to someone, somewhere".
According to the action plan, "Hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike. And with each broken norm, the pillars of our common humanity are weakened". The UN sees for itself a crucial role: "As a matter of principle, the United Nations must confront hate speech at every turn. Silence can signal indifference to bigotry and intolerance...".
Naturally, the UN assures everyone that, "Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting 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".
Except the UN most definitely seeks to limit freedom of speech, especially the kind that challenges the UN's agendas. This was evident with regard to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in which it was explicitly stated that public funding to "media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants" should be stopped.
Whatever constitutes intolerance, xenophobia, racism or discrimination was naturally left undefined, making the provision a convenient catchall for governments who wish to defund media that dissent from current political orthodoxy on migration.
In contrast to the UN Global Migration compact, the UN's action plan against hate speech does contain a definition of what the UN considers to be "hate" and it happens to be the broadest and vaguest of definitions possible:
"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". With a definition as broad as this, all speech could be labelled "hate".
The action plan, "aims to give to the United Nations the room and the resources to address hate speech, which poses a threat to United Nations principles, values and programmes. Measures taken will be in line with international human rights norms and standards, in particular the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The objectives are twofold: Enhance UN efforts to address root causes and drivers of hate speech [and] enable effective UN responses to the impact of hate speech on societies".
The UN makes it clear in the plan that it "will implement actions at global and country level, as well as enhance internal cooperation among relevant UN entities" to fight hate speech. It considers that "Tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all – governments, societies, the private sector" and it envisages "a new generation of digital citizens, empowered to recognize, reject and stand up to hate speech". What a brave new world.
In the plan, the UN sets up a number of areas of priority. Initially, the UN will "need to know more to act effectively" and it will therefore let "relevant UN entities... recognize, monitor, collect data and analyze hate speech trends". It will also seek to "adopt a common understanding of the root causes and drivers of hate speech in order to take relevant action to best address and/or mitigate its impact". In addition, the UN will "identify and support actors who challenge hate speech".
UN entities will also "implement human rights-centred measures which aim at countering retaliatory hate speech and escalation of violence" and "promote measures to ensure that the rights of victims are upheld, and their needs addressed, including through advocacy for remedies, access to justice and psychological counselling".
Disturbingly, the UN plans to put pressure directly on media and influence children through education:
"The UN system should establish and strengthen partnerships with new and traditional media to address hate speech narratives and promote the values of tolerance, non-discrimination, pluralism, and freedom of opinion and expression" and "take action in formal and informal education to ... promote the values and skills of Global Citizenship Education, and enhance Media and Information Literacy".
The UN is acutely aware that it needs to leverage strategic partnerships with an array of global and local, governmental and private actors in order to reach its goal. "The UN should establish/strengthen partnerships with relevant stakeholders, including those working in the tech industry. Most of the meaningful action against hate speech will not be taken by the UN alone, but by governments, regional and multilateral organizations, private companies, media, religious and other civil society actors" the action plan notes. "UN entities," it adds, "should also engage private sector actors, including social media companies, on steps they can take to support UN principles and action to address and counter hate speech, encouraging partnerships between government, industry and civil society". The UN also says that, "upon request" it will "provide support to Member States in the field of capacity building and policy development to address hate speech."
The action plan also reveals that the first concrete initiative is already planned. It is an "international conference on Education for Prevention with focus on addressing and countering Hate Speech which would involve Ministers of Education".
The new action plan plays straight into the decades-long attempts of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ban criticism of Islam. In the wake of the launch of Guterres' action plan, Pakistan has already presented a six-point plan "to address the new manifestations of racism and faith-based hatred, especially Islamophobia" at the United Nations headquarters. The presentation was organized by Pakistan along with Turkey, the Holy See and the UN.
According to news reports, the plan was proposed by Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi at a session titled "Countering terrorism and other acts of violence based on religion or belief".
"A particularly alarming development is the rise of Islamophobia which represents the recent manifestation of the age-old hatred that spawned anti-Semitism, racism, apartheid and many other forms of discrimination," the ambassador said in her speech. She added, "My Prime Minister Imran Khan has recently again called for urgent action to counter Islamophobia, which is today the most prevalent expression of racism and hatred against 'the other'".
"We are fully committed to support the UN's strategy on hate speech," said the Pakistani ambassador, "This is a moment for all of us to come together to reverse the tide of hate and bigotry that threatens to undermine social solidarity and peaceful co-existence."
In 2017, Facebook's Vice President of Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, reportedly agreed to requests from Pakistan's Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, to "remove fake accounts and explicit, hateful and provocative material that incites violence and terrorism" because "the entire Muslim Ummah was greatly disturbed and has serious concerns over the misuse of social media platforms to propagate blasphemous content".
At the UN, Pakistan's Ambassador Lodhi called for government interventions to fight hate speech, including national legislation, and reportedly "called for framing a more focused strategy to deal with the various expressions of Islamophobia. A 'whole of government' and a 'whole of society' approach was needed. In this regard, the Pakistani envoy urged the secretary-general to engage with a wide range of actors, including governments, civil society and social media companies to take action and stop social media users being funneled into online sources of radicalization".
The UN's all-out war on free speech is on.
 According to Objective 17 of the UN Global Compact on migration, member states commit to: "Promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets, including internet-based information, including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology, investing in ethical reporting standards and advertising, and stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants, in full respect for the freedom of the media." [Emphasis added.]
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.