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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

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Human Rights

Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’

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Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day. 

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said

“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added. 

Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial 

Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. 

“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said. 

“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.” 

Inequalities worsened by COVID-19

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD begins in childhood and tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care. 

While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

The World Day

The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”. 

The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism. 

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