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Protecting Civic Space in the European Union

 “Protecting Civic Space in the European Union” - Conference organized by the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe

UN House, Brussels, 11 October 2019


Closing Remarks by Under Secretary General Adama Dieng, Special Adviser of the United Nations Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Let me start by thanking you for attending this timely event. I truly believe that we all have a role to play in the prevention of genocide and atrocity crimes, and that we fulfil our mutual responsibilities better when we talk to each other and we work together. I am glad to see so many representatives from civil society organizations at this conference today.

I have always valued the role of civil society in many aspects of work, including in promoting protection of populations, fighting impunity, advocating for accountability and defending democratic values.

Protecting civic space means exactly that: ensuring that there is an open space for agents of prevention to do their work freely, without fear or interference, and in a way that it can contribute to broader, local, regional or international prevention agendas. 

I am just returning from Bosnia and Herzegovina where I met with people of different nationalities and faiths who are trying - against great odds - to reconcile communities torn apart by the conflicts of the 1990s. Unfortunately, nearly 25 years after the war, the citizens of Bosnia continue to be pulled apart by the on-going politics and rhetoric of division, fear, mistrust and hate. These peacebuilders at the local level need our sustained support more than ever.  It is for this reason that I am particularly concerned about the Swedish Academy’s decision to grant its 2019 prize to Peter Handke. The initial reactions of frustration, disbelief and anger from the Western Balkans region reflect the pain he has caused by using his voice to undercut historical truth and to challenge facts established by international justice institutions.  I very much agree with PEN America’s President, Jennifer Egan, who argued that “at a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”  More importantly, I say: The victims and survivors of genocide and war crimes deserve better than this.  The citizens in Bosnia who are trying to heal the scars of ethnic cleansing deserve better than this.

Throughout the world, we are seeing a surge in anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, attacks against Christians, and intolerance targeting other groups simply because of their identity. In short, we are seeing an alarming erosion in the values of inclusion, respect for diversity and dignity – the very same values that the United Nations was founded upon. Hatred and intolerance are not limited to words, they have increasingly manifested in actual violence. This year alone we have seen attacks in New Zealand, Sri Lanka and in the United States.

As UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, one of the key lessons I have observed from past genocides is that this crime does not start with physical violence, it starts with hate speech, with incitement to violence and with the dehumanization of “the other”.  We saw this in the extreme expressions of hatred and discrimination that resulted in the genocides in Srebrenica and against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Hate speech is therefore not only a concern in and of itself; it is also a risk factor associated with atrocity crimes, genocide in particular. It is imperative, therefore, that we act strongly to confront the trends we are currently witnessing.  

Here in Europe, we are seeing new trends emerging that threaten the long history of this continent build on human rights and democratic values. In some parts, people are being discriminated on the basis of their ethnicity, the religion they practice, the culture in which they were raised or simply because of distinctive physical characteristics. We are seeing some cynical politicians encouraging xenophobia and discrimination against those who look different, in order to gain political power. The victims have primarily been migrants and refugees. Unfortunately, human rights defenders speaking on behalf of those vulnerable groups are particularly harassed and attacked.

We need to support human rights defenders if we want to protect civic space. I have been glad to offer my hand to a mapping exercise, conducted in August this year, aimed at listing responses by European civil society organizations to rising identity-based violence within the region and at its borders.

To do this, the British civil society organization, Protection Approaches conducted an online consultation, including civil society, academics, community activists and campaigners from across Europe. The mapping included organizations that take action as well as those that monitor action or inaction by national governments. Indeed, European civil society should be leading by example, applying scrutiny to national and regional policymaking, and championing a bolder approach to prevention. This mapping will help identify lines of support to those who are doing the right work in difficult places.

Protection of vulnerable groups can come in many ways. Addressing and countering hate speech is one of them. As you may know, in June this year the Secretary-General presented the recently adopted United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech. 

The Strategy and Plan of Action represents the United Nations’ commitment to address and counter hate speech. It is built around two key objectives:

First, to enhance UNs efforts to address root causes and drivers of hate speech; and second to enable effective UN responses to the impact of hate speech on societies. This two-pronged approach highlights the importance of not only countering hate speech as it occurs and trying to minimize its impact on the affected communities, but also identifying and devising strategies to address the root causes that is allowing this hate to proliferate at the rate we are currently witnessing.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Tackling hate speech is crucial because of the threat that it poses to our shared values and the risk that it may escalate into incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence which is prohibited under international law. Logically, it is important that in supporting Member States and other actors in tackling hate speech, the United Nations emphasizes that all actions are in line with international human rights standards, and with freedom of opinion and expression in particular.

The United Nations supports more speech, not less, to tackle hate speech. Promoting more speech means promoting alternative narrative and positive speech narratives. It also means investing in addressing the root causes of this phenomenon.

In the Strategy, the Secretary-General urges all United Nations entities and heads of field presences to develop specific action plans to address hate speech within their respective mandates. I believe that this conference, convened by the United Nations Human Rights Regional Office in Europe, can contribute to launch such initiatives at country level.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

States have the primary obligation to protect their populations from atrocity crimes, including their incitement. Likewise, they have human rights obligations to prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence while respecting the freedom of expression and belief.

At the same time, they are not the only agents of prevention. Civil society organizations can raise the alarm and respond quickly, because they are always at grassroot level and closer to the people. 

But this is not a competition. In the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes, we all have a role to play. Protecting the civic space means nothing less than nurturing an environment that is conducive for all those who can play a role, to be able to do so. Let us all work together and do our best to ensure that this process of creating a preventative environment is prioritized, sustained and ultimately effective.  

Thank you very much.