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SG/SM/20992
26 October 2021

‘We Need to Make Lying Wrong Again’, Secretary-General Says at Education Conference, Stressing Misinformation, Hate Speech Threaten Creation of Tolerant, Peaceful World

Following are UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ opening remarks to the Global Ministerial Conference on Addressing Hate Speech through Education, held virtually today:

President Geingob of Namibia, thank you for co‑chairing this event with Director‑General Azoulay.  And I would repeat our thanks to France, Portugal, Lithuania, Qatar, the European Union and the Republic of Korea for their support of this conference.

I called for this conference because the issue of hate speech cuts to the heart of the polarization and divisions plaguing our world.  And it reminds us of the fundamental importance of knowledge and education in closing these divisions and building a better, more understanding and inclusive world.

Hatred takes root in the soil of ignorance.  Ignorance of historical facts.  Ignorance of science.  And ignorance of the essential human qualities that bind all people together no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, culture or background.  Denial of historical or scientific facts creates a vacuum of truth that is too easily exploited by the voices of intolerance and hate.  From the horrors of the Second World War, to the Rwandan, Bosnian and Cambodian genocides, hate speech was a precursor to the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

Today, social media provides a global megaphone for hate.  Lies, misinformation — and its close cousin, disinformation — spread around the world at the touch of a button.  Unverified and unaccountable thought can gain instant credibility, placed on an equal footing with proven facts and science.  A dubious webpage or anonymous post can call into question decades — even centuries — of work, thought, study and careful analysis by scientists, historians or other experts.  And racist, intolerant and extremist views can spread like wildfire — preying in particular upon those who feel unseen and unheard.

Hate‑filled claims that target diverse members of our human family are not without consequence.  They are not victimless.  They feed people’s fear and anxieties.  They push people further apart socially and politically.  They undermine democratic ideals.  They kill.

Too many people are dying from COVID‑19 because they were convinced that accepting the vaccine was the wrong thing to do.  Too many people carry out acts of violence, terrorism and even genocide, because they’ve been convinced that it is the right thing to do.  We can draw a direct line between hate speech and anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violence.  And we see it mirrored in acts of misogyny against women, and violence against refugees, migrants, and minorities, including people of Asian descent who were outrageously blamed for COVID‑19.

When we enrich the soil of knowledge with true expertise — with facts, science and historical accuracy — hatred cannot take root.  That’s because education that opens our eyes to diversity, debate and exploration inherently generates respect for human rights, social justice and dignity for all.  It also provides learners with the critical thinking skills needed to challenge those who spread lies and hatred.

Critical thought is not simply “thinking for yourself.”  It is about having the tools and skills needed to properly assess theories and facts.  To weigh opposing ideas and judge them accordingly.  To have the courage and ability to articulate dissent in the face of mis- or disinformation.  And to tilt the scales in favour of authorities and experts who have spent a lifetime studying, assessing and thinking about these issues, by publicly and privately expressing support.

There is always room for debate around opinions.  There is no room for debate around facts.  We need to make lying wrong again.  That’s what this conference is all about — discussing ways in which education can help us fight back against mis- and disinformation and hate speech.

Education is critical to a primary aim of my Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, launched in 2019:  prevention.  Educators, teachers and administrators are our first line of defence in preventing hate speech from taking hold.  We’re counting on education systems that can build young people’s critical thinking skills.  So they can tell facts from fiction and real news from fake news.  So they can learn about, and build respect and tolerance for, other faiths and beliefs.  And so they can recognize and appreciate the essential humanity, dignity and human rights we all share.

But we need your help.  As Ministers of Education, this is the place to share your good practices and lessons learned in your own jurisdictions.  But it is also a place to be ambitious.  We need to emerge from this conference with bold, concrete solutions on how we can individually and collectively step up the fight against hate speech.

This must include gathering many others to our cause.  From community groups in your countries who are already engaged in pushing back against hatred and intolerance.  To young people, who will inherit our future and must be part of our efforts.  To technology and social media companies, who need to be doing far more to stop their platforms from serving as megaphones for hate speech and mis- and disinformation.  To Governments and political parties themselves, who, in their pursuit of power, can too easily succumb to the temptations of divisive, nationalist and “us against them” narratives that encourage hatred.

Last month’s multi‑stakeholder forum to prepare for this conference brought together a wide diversity of groups — reminding us of the high level of interest in this issue.  We need all hands on deck — policy makers, youth representatives, the private sector and the multilateral community.  And we need to continue building bridges, to overcome the artificial divides that are being created and reinforced daily.

The United Nations was founded specifically to ensure that the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust were never repeated.  To provide a place for the countries of the world to gather and debate ideas in peace — grounded in reason, diplomacy and tolerance.  And to protect and defend the rights and essential dignity of all people. 

Hatred is a danger to everyone and so fighting it must be a job for everyone.  That’s why the United Nations family is proud to walk this path with you, and ensure that education is the key weapon in the fight against hatred in all its forms.  I look forward to continuing our fight against hate speech, and working to build the tolerant and peaceful world through education that every person deserves.

Thank you all for your commitment to this important work.

For information media. Not an official record.