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The UN’s deadly silence on incitement

Without a vigorous international stand against fomenting genocidal hatred, 'Never Again' will be a distant dream

“Terrorism does not begin with an attack on a bus or a raid on a village,” said Ambassador Ron Prosor last week at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where he addressed a meeting convened to propose an international convention for the prevention of incitement to terror. “That is how terrorism ends.”

As Prosor spoke, I was reminded of my only other invitation to the UN. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I spoke at the UN’s annual International Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies in 2010. I showed a clip from my short documentary, B-2247: A Granddaughter’s Understanding, about my grandfather’s survival of Auschwitz and the importance of telling and teaching his and other survivors’ stories.

In 1949, with the atrocities of the Holocaust fresh in the mind of the international community, the UN ratified the Genocide Convention. The treaty, however, focuses almost exclusively on punishment. With only two references to prevention, the treaty does little to clarify what measures states must take to prevent genocide.

The international community’s failure to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995 highlight this important distinction.

In both Rwanda and Srebrenica, there were warning signs of impending crisis. Incitement was identified as the central catalyst for the crimes committed. Before and during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, extremist Hutus used the state-run radio station, “Radio Rwanda,” to incite against the Tutsis, dehumanizing the ethnic group by referring to them as “inyenzi” (cockroaches) and arguing to send them back to Ethiopia via the Nyabarongo River. In the early 1990’s, Radovan Karadzic stigmatized Bosniaks as not “belonging to the family of nations.” Many, including Richard Holbrooke believed the war that broke out in Bosnia was not the result of “ancient hatreds” between peoples but the result of a deliberate policy of incitement by the Serbs on Belgrade television.

There are existential dangers associated with ignoring state-sanctioned hate speech, particularly when it is tied to a direct call to action. The events of the 1990s illustrate this, as do the increasing number of victims around the world today killed by terrorist acts motivated by state-sponsored programs promoting intolerance and violence against racial and religious minority groups.

Ban Ki-Moon seems to understand this. In an address to the General Assembly in 2012, he raised questions about the will and capacity of the international community to protect populations from “crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement.” “‘Never again’ is the oft-heard cry,” Ki-Moon said, “but I am haunted by the fear that we do not live up to this call.”

I am also fearful.

During my second visit to the United Nations last week, I listened as current and former Israeli emissaries presented and endorsed a draft international convention to criminalize incitement to terror under international law. In accordance with the treaty, state parties would need to refrain from organizing, instigating, financing or facilitating activities involved with incitement to terror in territories under their jurisdiction.

Numerous speakers took the stage to support the treaty drafted by Alan Baker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, including a former legal officer to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the founder of One Free World International, an international NGO focusing on the rights of religious minorities around the world.

The meeting could have been monumental. It could have marked the first step to equipping the international community with a new and important mechanism to disrupt the ecosystems of terror and extremism seen throughout the world today.

Unfortunately, the UN’s leadership did not rise to the occasion. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon did not accept the invitation to participate in the meeting and instead assigned his Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs to deliver remarks. But she cancelled the night before without giving a reason and without sending a replacement.

We can only speculate about the reason for the last-minute cancellation, but we can be sure of one thing: the United Nations will continue to remain silent on the issue of incitement to terror.

“Terrorism begins when its perpetrators are indoctrinated with words and thoughts of hate,” Prosor said last week at the UN. Today, in Zambia, President Michael Sata has sought to weaken the opposition by inciting tribal conflicts through false news stories. In Saudi Arabia, a ninth-grade textbook published by the Ministry of Education reads, “The Jews and Christians are enemies of the believers, and they cannot approve of Muslims.” In Gaza and the West Bank, official Palestinian television describes Israel as an “enemy” and as a “snake coiled around the land,” and terrorists, such as Dalal Mughrabi, who killed 38 Israeli civilians and had a public square named after her, are given an honored status in society.

Prompt interference in response to dehumanizing language and incitement to terror is the only effective way to prevent crimes against humanity and lay the groundwork for more peaceful and tolerant societies.

Until the Secretary General’s office is willing to listen to proposals to curtail states’ abilities to promote hatred and incite terror, I fear “never again” will remain only a distant dream.

About the Author
Sara Greenberg is pursuing a masters degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a masters in business administration from Harvard Business School; she was born in Philadelphia, PA but has lived and worked in New York, Hong Kong, Beijing and Jerusalem