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Ukraine: Briefing on “Incitement to Violence Leading to Atrocity Crimes”

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Tomorrow morning (21 June), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The focus of the meeting, which was called by Albania, will be on “Incitement to violence leading to atrocity crimes”. Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu and two civil society representatives are expected to brief. Ukraine and Lithuania are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Nearly four months since the start of Russia’s military offensive, the humanitarian situation across Ukraine continues to rapidly deteriorate, with civilian casualties exceeding 10,000. As at 20 June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 4,569 deaths and 5,691 injuries. Moreover, approximately 12.1 million people have been forcibly displaced by the hostilities, according to a 15 June OCHA humanitarian impact situation report. That figure includes 7.1 million internally displaced people and five million refugees who have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are expected to express sharply diverging views about the effects of hate speech and incitement to violence in the context of the war in Ukraine. Ukraine and several Council members—including the US and European Council members—have accused Russia of spreading false narratives about Ukraine and using them as a pretext for its invasion. These member states contend that Russia’s dehumanising narratives amount to hate speech and have led Russian troops to commit atrocity crimes against Ukrainians during the war, including in areas that were temporarily under Russian control such as the town of Bucha.

Russia for its part has long accused Ukrainian authorities of systemically subverting the interests of ethnic Russian minorities living in Ukraine. On 22 December 2021, against the backdrop of its military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, Russia organised an Arria-formula meeting on “the situation of national minorities and the glorification of Nazism in the Baltic and Black Sea regions”. In this meeting and on other occasions, Russia has argued that Kyiv had been overrun by Nazis and that violent nationalism posed an existential threat to ethnic Russians residing in Ukraine. At the 22 December 2021 Arria-formula meeting, the US accused Russia of using the Arria-formula format to “amplify its disinformation against Ukraine”, while the UK said that Moscow is using the meeting to “distort history for its own political purposes”. (For background, see our 21 December 2021 What’s in Blue story.)

More recently, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Moscow has accused Ukrainian troops of committing war crimes, including against Russian prisoners of war. It has also argued that Western countries and international mechanisms such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission are wilfully ignoring these violations. Russia has also categorically denied any accusations of atrocities committed by its troops in Ukraine. It has accused Ukraine and the West of fabricating evidence and spreading false narratives regarding the events in Bucha and other northern towns and villages. Russia has taken such positions on several occasions, including during an Arria-formula meeting it organised on 6 May. (For background, see our 5 May What’s in Blue story.)

At tomorrow’s meeting, Nderitu may describe the effects of hate speech on the conflict in Ukraine and urge constructive dialogue between the parties to find a peaceful solution. In an 18 March statement, Nderitu expressed her commitment to supporting reconciliation efforts in Ukraine and urged the prioritisation of dialogue initiatives to find an end to the conflict. On 6 April, Nderitu issued a statement condemning the alleged atrocities committed by Russian armed forces while in control of Bucha and calling for an independent investigation leading to criminal accountability over the killing of civilians.

Tomorrow’s meeting will take place following the first International Day for Countering Hate Speech, which was held on 18 June, in line with the 21 July 2021 General Assembly resolution on “promoting inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech”. During a high-level General Assembly meeting marking this occasion, which took place this morning (20 June), Albania said that “if left unchecked, hate speech and disinformation have the potential to harm peace and development, as it lays the ground for conflicts and tensions, [and] wide scale human rights violations”. It further stressed that “addressing hate speech and its destructive force must remain an urgent priority for the international community”.

At tomorrow’s meeting, some members may also comment on the role of misinformation in fuelling the conflict in Ukraine. In a 4 May joint statement, representatives and rapporteurs on the freedom of expression from various international organisations—including the UN, the African Commission of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the OSCE—expressed concern at the spread of disinformation regarding the Ukraine war in Russian state-owned media and on digital and social media platforms. Underlining that propaganda for war and national hatred—which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence—is prohibited under article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the statement called on Russia to “immediately refrain from these unlawful practices”.

Concerns regarding Russia’s disinformation campaigns prompted Twitter to introduce restrictive measures against Russian government accounts on 5 April. On 27 April, the EU announced a ban on Russian state-owned television networks operating in Europe and, on 25 May, it unveiled plans to enhance its code of practice on online disinformation, requiring that social media companies commit to a set of measures aimed at reducing the spread and proliferation of fake news.

Several Council members may highlight the role of technology and social media companies in limiting the reach of inflammatory statements by political actors and disinformation. In his message marking the International Day for Countering Hate Speech, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that hate speech “dehumanizes individuals and communities” and that “the internet and social media have turbocharged hate speech, enabling it to spread like wildfire across borders”. The Council has become increasingly involved in addressing online hate speech and its effects on international peace and security. On 28 October 2021, Kenya and the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect co-organised a closed Arria-formula meeting on Addressing and Countering Hate Speech and Preventing Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility, and Violence on Social Media. The objective of the meeting was to facilitate a dialogue between Council members, the UN, and social media companies to improve responses to hate speech and incitement in conflict situations.

Some Council members may highlight the important role played by religious leaders in combatting hate speech. On 16 June, the UK imposed sanctions on Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for his “prominent support of Russian military aggression in Ukraine”.

Several members may also raise other pressing issues of concern regarding the war in Ukraine, including the need for an exit route for Ukrainian grain and other food items to global markets and the humanitarian situation in the eastern city of Severodonetsk.

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