We The Peoples
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We The Peoples

Never Again? How ‘the strong word kills you’

Laying a wreath to commemorate the victims of the Srebrenica Genocide guided by survivor and Director of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, Emir Suljagić.

Never again. It’s a response we reach for instinctively whenever we are confronted with the sickening facts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But what does it really mean? Even if we recognize the warning signs, what can we do concretely to prevent hate from spilling over into violence?

These questions haunt scholars and practitioners working across the world hoping to prevent future atrocities. They certainly hung heavy in the air during a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where I met many courageous men, women and young people, including relatives of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. I was there to listen, and to learn.

I was both moved and disturbed by what I heard during my visit. The crimes and lessons of the brutal 1992–1995 war in BiH must never be forgotten. Yet nearly 30 years on, there are still those seeking to deny the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide that have been clearly proven under international law, and glorify the war criminals who perpetrated them. Revisionist narratives are rife as political leaders propagate war-time agendas of division. An atmosphere of fear and mistrust was palpable.

Downplaying or denying atrocities are among the worst forms of hate speech. BiH has laws banning speech inciting violence and discrimination, the denial or war crimes, including genocide, as well as glorification of convicted war criminals. But systematic enforcement is often patchy, while hate speech, denial and glorification are ubiquitous.

That has set alarm bells ringing. After all, words matter. This country, with its ghosts, traumas, and unreconciled narratives of the past , knows that more than most. Words stir fear; they deepen suspicions and undermine trust. Hate spews from politicians, is repeated in the media, and amplified online. Efforts to build empathy and mutual respect struggle to take root.

I’m not talking about mere insults here. One lesson that we have clearly learnt is that Othering, or dehumanizing language, often serves as a precursor to atrocities. It can happen anywhere, but the alarms ring louder where blood has already been spilled; where justice is outstanding and ‘truths’ clash. Such places offer fertile soil for hate.

As one Bosnian proverb, “Ubi te jaka rijec” goes, “the strong word kills you.”

Tackling hate speech in all forms is an urgent priority for the United Nations across the world. Growing numbers of countries see mounting attacks on societal groups just for being who they are. Because of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, sexuality, or gender.

I was shocked to hear the price paid by those taking a stand against such hate in BiH. Journalists, CSOs, associations and even individual “local champions of peace” who dare to investigate, critic and speak truth to power face campaigns of denunciations and threats to themselves and their families, with some even facing physical attacks. Complaints go unanswered. One Bosnian called it a “conspiracy of silence.”

But these brave souls told me they won’t be cowed. They will continue working for their higher cause, convinced, as I am, that democracy can’t function without a free press. Those doggedly seeking the truth and to deconstruct narratives of hate in BiH need and deserve protection, support, and sustainable funding.

There were other glimmers of hope, too. I was cheered to hear from young activists finding new ways to counter hate, work across ethnic divides, slow the brain drain, and build a more cohesive future. And I was inspired by Sto Te Nema (Where Have You Been), an artistic initiative where artists have spent decades forging a global community around the memory of Srebrenica. The 31-year-old female mayor of Sarajevo who delivers a constant stream messages of unity and solidarity, ignoring the hateful and threatening attacks she receives online every day. The Director of the Sarajevo Film Festival, which started as a form of resistance during the brutal siege of Sarajevo, spoke of tens of thousands of festival visitors who travel here every August to celebrate film and the resilient ‘heart’ of this multi-ethnic city.

These efforts are not just inspirational individuals and initiatives. They are vital in holding back the rising tides of hate. Because it isn’t enough just to recognize the warning signs. We must find ways of putting the brakes on when societies risk tumbling back down the track towards violence and conflict.

The challenges BiH is facing nearly 30 years after the end of the war demonstrates how much sustained, active attention is required of international and local peacebuilders to ultimately bring about a genuine, durable peace. I heard many times over that the world took its eyes off BiH much too soon after the conflict.

The people I met in BiH told me of a society not only fractured by a bloody past, but suspended in division, with competing views about the past, the present and the future; with divergent political agendas and narratives. Such divisions can make it tempting to blame the ‘others’ for all of society’s ills. This is fertile ground for those seeking to peddle in hate. We must therefore all own the problem.

Hate speech puts us all at risk. That’s why it’s down to all of us to stand more resolutely against it. Whether regulators or broadcasters, social media bosses or influencers or just ordinary people online — we can and must do more to stop hate speech.

Walking among the white graves at the Memorial Center Srebrenica, I reflected on the power of memory. To read the names of the victims listed there is to deny those who sought to exterminate them and then hide their crimes. Never again means to face up to the past, and our roles within it.

In 2012, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel wrote: “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow … never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence.” I am disturbed to see the scourge of Holocaust denial is also growing and infecting the internet. My team and I are stepping up our efforts to keep the facts of the Holocaust and the memory of the victims alive.

We communicators have a special responsibility to fight it. We must amplify the voices of survivors and support institutions recording their stories for the generations to come. We must fight against revisionism, glorification, denial; we must push back against messages that sow mistrust, fear and suspicion. We must amplify the positive stories of everyday people re-building bridges within and between war-torn communities. We must offer positive counter-narratives to diminish the impact of hate. And we must tirelessly tell and retell the horrific truth about war, in the hope that all who hear it will recommit to stand against hate.

On June 18, my colleagues and I at the UN will mark the first International Day for Countering Hate Speech. We are asking people everywhere to join us via our online #notohate campaign and raise their voices for peace and cohesion. To not just say never again, but to be part of ensuring again never happens.

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