Remarks by the High Representative for UNAOC
High Level Event on the report of the UN Secretary-General on terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion and belief
United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism
30 November 2022
Around the globe ,there has been a disturbing groundswell of xenophobia and racism based on religion or belief.
Social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as platforms for bigotry, hate speech, ethnonationalism.
Public discourse is being weaponized for political gains with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and demonizes “the other”.
Such vile trends have been exacerbated during the pandemic leading to fragmentation of societies and posing a serious threat to international peace and security.
There has been an increase rather than a retreat in interreligious violence particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in Somalia , Mali , Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and in Afghanistan. Terrorist and violent extremism-related attacks targeted faith communities and places of worship.
Violence based on religion or belief occurs in both conflict and non-conflict settings, though the highest levels of death occur in armed conflict contexts.
Religion-related atrocities/intolerant-related acts are always cause for alarm, and can take place within or outside armed conflict settings. They should be considered as root causes /drivers of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.
It should be noted that the underlying motivations for the conflict are not always or necessarily founded in religion or belief. In other words, quite often terrorist and violent extremist groups, and far-right groups politicize religion to serve their own agendas.
In many countries, acts of violent extremism are attributed to an overall confrontational discourse on religion.
Politicizing religion is also a trend used by some state actors .
Terrorism in the name of religion invoked by state or non-state should be taken seriously.
Again the pandemic eroded trust in public institutions and accelerated the spread of hate speech and bigotry in terms of public reception of such messages on line in particular.
Countering hate speech in the media is a cross cutting pillar in the work of UNAOC.
I wish to highlight briefly examples of the work of UNAOC towards countering this phenomena:
In the aftermath of the tragic terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, UNAOC developed the UN Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites. The plan is rooted in the human rights law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It re-enforces the interrelation of articles 18 and 19. The plan stresses the collective responsibility of public officials, religious and community leaders, the media and individuals, and the need to nurture social consciousness, tolerance, mutual respect, and intercultural and interreligious dialogue to prevent incitement to hatred based on religion or belief.
The Plan, launched in September 2019, contains an action-oriented framework with specific recommendations informed by a series of consultations with a wide variety of stakeholders, including Member States, religious leaders, faith-based organizations, civil society, youth, media, and other actors.
One of the recommendations of the Plan is to implement a global communications campaign to foster mutual respect and understanding, which aims to enhance media awareness. As stated in the Plan, “Terrorist attacks and hatred seek to divide us. A campaign to foster unity and solidarity will be very powerful to counteract those messages.”
In accordance with this, in September 2020, UNAOC launched the Global Communications Campaign #forSafeWorship on the occasion of the UNAOC ministerial meeting of the Group of Friends.
Salient components of the campaign include a hashtag (#forSafeWorship), unique branding, a dynamic and interactive website (forsafeworship.org), digital toolkits, and a range of multimedia resources to highlight the Plan of Action and its recommendations.
Social media is at the forefront of the campaign, amplifying counter-narratives and positive messaging on respect and solidarity. Through @forSafeWorship accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more recently TikTok, UNAOC features materials submitted by people all around the world, including an array of videos, photo essays, and personal stories. All multimedia submissions are simultaneously published on the campaign website, forsafeworship.org.
To date, UNAOC has received inspiring stories from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Spain, the UK, the USA and more. A total of 136 submissions have been received thus far.
Stories range from the spiritual playing of Puerto Rican drums known as “La Bomba” in a small church in Puerto Rico, to a young Canadian’s reflections upon discovering a historically significant synagogue in Brooklyn, to a young woman’s musings about Egypt’s ancient temples and tombs, to a young Afghani’s photo essay about one of Islam’s holiest places, to a video mosaic of religious diversity in Morroco, to a young environmentalist’s trek to an ancient temple in India, to several other deeply moving and poignant chronicles of people’s personal experiences in various places of worship throughout the world.
All stories have one thing in common – they foster values of solidarity, respect, mutual understanding, and social cohesion. More importantly, they embody the campaign’s call to action, i.e. advocating for safe worship.
This call to action is amplified through successful social media activations. Over the past year, the hashtag #forSafeWorship has generated 7.6 million in social media reach. Further, the campaign has generated 11.1 million impressions for posts across major platforms. Meanwhile, the campaign’s website was visited by 120,292 users in the past year. The top users are from Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Morocco, and the United States.
UNAOC continues to amplify this global movement through its digital channels, inviting more stories from faith communities all over the world.
The ‘EDIN’ (“Empowering Dialogue and Interfaith Networks”) is a joint project that was implemented in 2021 -2022 by UNAOC, UNCCT and UNOCT seeks to engage young religious leaders, faith actors and young media makers in peer-to-peer capacity building trainings focused on using religion and interfaith dialogue on social media to defuse sectarian tensions, to counter terrorist narratives and to promote social cohesion.
The project stemmed from three areas of action – promoting interreligious dialogue, youth empowerment, and countering terrorist narratives – that are considered crucial across the United Nations system to prevent and counter violent extremism,
The pilot project was launched in January 2021 by UNAOC and UNOCT/UNCCT. Despite challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, participants were able to engage in a series of virtual capacity-building activities to enhance their competencies in strategic communications and help them to debunk hateful discourse and promote inter-religious understanding, as key to social cohesion.
Subsequently, participants worked on creating and implementing social media campaigns targeting various audiences across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond. Their campaigns highlighted positive examples of peaceful coexistence and interfaith harmony among the three Abrahamic faiths, and celebrated diversity, promoted inclusion and tolerance, addressed radicalization, hate speech, prejudices and biases, extremist views about ‘the other’ and related violence on account of religion or belief.
One of the outcomes of the project included enabling young religious leaders, faith actors and media makers to become better equipped to advocate for stronger collaboration between media professionals, religious leaders and policymakers in the field of interfaith and interreligious dialogue.
The pilot project could be good model to replicate and adapt to other religions or faiths. It serves as a good practice of countering the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes, including by developing counter-terrorist narratives and through innovative technological solutions, all while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and in compliance with domestic and international law.
UNAOC stands ready to collaborate with all state and non-state stakeholders to counter the scourge of xenophobia and discrimination in all its forms while respecting human rights law and international law.