Defending human rights in the digital age – #RightsCity 2021

25 June 2021
This year, GAAMAC was proud to support its partners from the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) that, with a consortium of educational institutions and diplomatic representations in Canada under the patronage of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, organized #RightsCity – Canada’s premier conference on human rights and technology.

#RightsCity 2021 started on June 15 and engaged several hundred speakers and participants in four days of lectures and panel sessions examining how technological advancements affect the future of human rights.

As noted in the United Nations Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, digital technologies provide new means to exercise human rights, but they are often used to violate human rights. This was precisely the theme of #RightsCity’s session ‘’Confronting Online Hate Speech’’ that hosted GAAMAC’s Chair Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, Facebook’s Senior Human Rights Advisory Iain Levine, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes as panelists.

The discussion moderated by Naomi Kikoler of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide addressed different aspects of online hate speech and just how challenging the work on combatting this phenomenon is.

‘’Hate speech was not invented by the rise of technologies, but the digital age has given a new dimension to hate speech in the online spaces’’, GAAMAC’s Chair Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi opened the session addressing the important issues of balance in combatting hate speech and protecting human rights and highlighted the need for a joint response and action against hate speech on the side of civil society, state and the international community.

The widespread targeting of minorities through online hate speech was another important aspect of the session.

Fernand de Varennes, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues used as an example the propaganda used by the Nazis to explain how the spread of hate narratives is multiplied in today’s age. ‘’Social media platforms now amplify intolerance and prejudice and allow thousands of little Joseph Goebbels to spew propaganda of hate and racism that almost immediately reaches huge numbers of people around the world.’’

The digital age did not only introduce new resources and tools to the arena of human rights, but it also introduced new players to the intersection of technology and universal rights, including businesses and corporations.

On this note, Iain Levine, a dedicated activist, and Facebook’s Senior Human Rights Advisory discussed different methodologies and tools Facebook uses in ensuring that its users are adhering to human rights principles when engaging with their platforms.

‘’Facebook’s latest Corporate Human Rights Policy puts specific focus on international conventions for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, all forms of discrimination against women, children and persons with disabilities because we have seen that so often inflammatory speech hate speech is directed at minorities and we are working to live up to these international commitments.’’, said Levine while reiterating that one big practical challenge in combatting hate speech is still the consensus around its definition.

In addition to regulations and legal frameworks, the need for education and innovative approaches to prevention was discussed as ways to combat online hate speech and nurture tolerance and peaceful narratives online.

‘’In addition to removing hateful content, we must also think about creating counter-narratives to hate and intolerance,’’ said Gurmendi referencing the work GAAMAC does in raising awareness and educating the public on what constitutes hate speech and exploring good practices by different actors, including civil society and states in preventing atrocities.

Kikoler closed the session by reiterating the need to find innovative, joint ways to combat hate speech and work on systematically preventing the atrocities fuelled by hate. ‘’Online hate speech is a multisectoral issue and everyone has a role to play; from individual media literacy to social media companies and national governments.’’

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