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Companies ‘failing’ to address offline harm incited by online hate

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States and companies are “failing” when it comes to combating online hate, the UN independent rights expert, or Special Rapporteur, on freedom of speech and expression said on Monday, ahead of the launch of a landmark report to reinforce legal standards for internet spaces. 

Cautioning that hate speech runs the risk of being devalued as a term, David Kaye stressed the real dangers posed by a lack of consistent policy when it comes to monitoring and stamping out hate speech in the digital age.  

“The prevalence of online hate poses challenges to everyone, first and foremost the marginalised individuals who are its principal targets,” said Mr. Kaye, in the report to be presented to the UN General Assembly today.

“Unfortunately, States and companies are failing to prevent ‘hate speech’ from becoming the next ‘fake news’, an ambiguous and politicised term subject to governmental abuse and company discretion.”

UN experts addressed the scourge in an open letter last month, warning that hate speech, both online and offline has “exacerbated societal and racial tensions, inciting attacks with deadly consequences around the world” and highlighted the correlation between exposure to hate speech and number of crimes committed as a result.

In June the Secretary-General put forth a new plan to identify and confront the growing scourge, which Mr. Guterres noted was launched at a time of a groundswell in xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. 

Moreover, “hateful and destructive views” are amplified “exponentially” through digital technology, he warned

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action targets the root causes of hate speech – from violence, marginalization, discrimination and poverty, and advises bolstering weak national institutions. 

Echoing the UN Chief, Mr. Kaye stressed that “online hate is no less harmful because it is online…To the contrary, online hate, with the speed of reach of its dissemination, can incite grave offline harm…The question is not whether to address such abuse. It is how to do so in a way that respects the rights everyone enjoys.” 

Rooted in human rights 

The Monday report urges States meet their obligations by rooting their efforts in rights’ treaties and international human rights law, in accordance with the UN Human Rights Committee, and the 2013 Rabat Plan of Action, a framework by the UN human rights office (OHCHR) which aims to clarify State obligations prohibiting incitement of hatred and discrimination. 

New laws imposing liability on companies “are failing basic standards” Mr. Kaye said, and companies are not “taking seriously their responsibilities to respect human rights”, despite hate speech fermenting on their platforms. 

The roadmap to tackling online hate in the new report also underscores the impact of leaving human rights best practices out of company culture.

“The human rights community has had a long-term conversation with social media and other companies in the Internet economy,” the independent expert said, “and yet the companies remain stubbornly committed to policies that fail to articulate their actions according to basic norms of human rights law.” 

The landmark report comes at a time when social media giant Facebook, which owns other popular social platform, Instagram, has reportedly been pushed to address violent content spreading on its services, in addition to false news reports and disinformation, which has prompted discussion around the role of social media overall in the spread of hate messages. 

“The companies’ failure to recognise their power and impact, and to value shareholders over public interest, must end immediately,” Kaye said. “This report gives the companies the tools to change course.”

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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Human Rights

Over 1.9 billion people in Asia-Pacific unable to afford a healthy diet

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A child is tested for malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported health clinic in Bangladesh. According a UN report, malnutrition among young children and infants remains a pervasive problem in South Asia. UNICEF/Siegfried Modola

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and surging food prices are keeping almost two billion people in Asia and the Pacific from healthy diets, United Nations agencies said on Wednesday.

According to the 2020 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition, the region’s poor have been worst affected, forced to choose cheaper and less nutritious foods. The report is jointly produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“The outbreak of COVID-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, has led to a worsening of inequality, as poorer families with dwindling incomes further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods,” the agencies said

“Due to higher prices for fruits, vegetables and dairy products, it has become nearly impossible for poor people in Asia and the Pacific to achieve healthy diets, the affordability of which is critical to ensure food security and nutrition for all – and for mothers and children in particular.” 

As a result, progress is also slowing on improving nutrition, a key target for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As of 2019, over 350 million people in the region are estimated to have been undernourished, with an about 74.5 million children under five stunted (too short for their age) and 31.5 million suffering from wasting (too thin for height). 

‘Impact most severe in first 1,000 days’ 

The UN agencies went on to note that while nutrition is vitally important throughout a person’s life, the impact of a poor diet is most severe in the first 1,000 days, from pregnancy to when a child reaches the age of two. 
“Young children, especially when they start eating their ‘first foods’ at six months, have high nutritional requirements to grow well and every bite counts,” they said. 

The agencies called for an integrated systems approach – bringing together food, water and sanitation, health, social protection and education systems – to address underlying factors and achieve healthy diets for all mothers and children. 

‘Changing face of malnutrition’ 

They also highlighted the “changing face” of malnutrition, with highly processed and inexpensive foods, readily available throughout Asia and the Pacific. Often packed with sugar and unhealthy fats, such food items lack the vitamins and minerals required for growth and development and also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

The report urged governments to invest more in nutrition and food safety to promote healthy diets, as well as regulate sales and marketing of food for consumers, especially children. It also highlighted the need for action within the private sector, given the sector’s important role in the food system and its value chains for achieving healthy diets. 

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Human Rights

Israel: ‘Halt and reverse’ new settlement construction

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (File) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

Israel’s decision to advance plans for some 800 new settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank, has sparked the concern of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. 

In a statement issued on Monday by his spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief urged the Israeli Government to “halt and reverse such decisions”, calling them “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. 

‘No legal validity’ 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that Israel’s establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. 

“Settlement expansion increases the risk of confrontation, further undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines”, he said. 

Pushing forward 

Israel has given the green light to 780 new homes in West Bank settlements on Sunday in a move widely seen as being influenced by the imminent transfer of power in the United States. 

Breaking with decades of US diplomacy, outgoing President Donald Trump, in 2019 unilaterally declared that the settlements no longer breached international law. 

Against that backdrop, Israel has been increasing construction and either approved or made plans for more than 12,000 homes in 2020, according to news reports.

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Spectre of unrest, violent repression looming over Haiti

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Fire residues and debris at a protest site in Port-au-Prince in July 2018. MINUJUSTH/Leonora Baumann

Increasing political tensions in Haiti coupled with insecurity and structural inequalities could result in protests followed by violent crackdowns by authorities, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned on Tuesday.

According to the office, criminal activities, such as kidnappings, gang fights and widespread insecurity have increased, with “almost total” impunity. 

Added to the volatile mix is resurging political tensions over the timing and scope of elections and a constitutional referendum proposed by the Government, OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva. 

“Calls for mass protests have been growing. This in turn raises concerns of renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests as seen during the months-long protests in 2018 and 2019, as well as during demonstrations in October and November of last year.” 

According to an OHCHR report on the unrest, protests started relatively peacefully in July 2018 but became increasingly violent over time, with many violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.  

‘Pattern of violations’ 

The report also documented violations to the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In 2019 demonstrations, barricades were set up that blocked people’s access to hospitals and passage of ambulances. Health facilities were also attacked, severely impacting the daily lives of the Haitian people, particularly those in a vulnerable situation. 

In addition, protesters and criminal elements imposed “passage fees”, further impeding the movement of people and goods and exacerbating economic hardship. 

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Ms. Hurtado said. 

‘Guarantee accountability’ 

The OHCHR spokesperson called on Haitian authorities to take “immediate action” to avoid repetition of such violations and abuses by ensuring that law enforcement officers abide by international norms and standards regarding the use of force when dealing with protests; as well as ensuring that gangs do not interfere with people’s right to demonstrate peacefully. 

She also urged the Government to guarantee accountability for past violations and abuses, ensuring justice, truth, and reparations. Alongside, Haiti should take steps to address people’s grievances and the root causes that fuelled the protests, she added. 

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfilment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Ms. Hurtado said, welcoming commitments made by the Haitian National Police to reform practices documented in the report. 

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