Mary Nyamayi Tut, the chairlady of the displaced women who have sought sanctuary at the UN protection site 3 in Juba, believes that if hatred and hate speech is pervasive among South Sudanese communities, conflict will not stop.
“It’s better to sit down, talk to each other, reconcile, and see how to overcome hatred and hate speech,” she said during a workshop on combating hate speech, organized by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
The workshop, which brought together experts, the displaced community’s leaders, and religious leaders, is one among a series of interactions being organized by the UNMISS Human Rights Division, “to help the communities identify hate speech and begin to develop strategies on how to mitigate its effects,” according to lead trainer Henry Omusundi Maina, a human rights expert and regional head of Article 19.
“Their situation is a consequence of hate speech and incitement of violence,” said Eugene Nindorera, the UNMISS head of human rights, referring to the displaced community at the Mission’s protection site. “So, to be able to combat hate speech properly, we should involve those who are victims and those who’re part of the population, too,” he added.
Surprisingly, some displaced people questioned the relevance of the workshop, as they did not think hate speech was a problem within their community. Mr. Maina explained why this was so:
“The starting point in most situations is when people see ‘the other’ as the offending group, and they don’t see themselves as part of the challenge,” he said. “But I hope over time, they’ll get to see their role in the continued cycle of hate speech and the attendant violence and displacement that has happened.”
Data Isaac Simon, a young man living in the protection site, agrees, as he has experienced first-hand what hate speech can do, from losing his home to losing a section of his community recently.
“Yes, we have evidence about that, from outside, up to inside here,” he said, referring both to the national conflict that led to their displacement, and to the recent fighting in the protection site. “Hate speech even made the community to get split into two,” he lamented, adding, “Like currently, [since] two months back we have part of our community in Mangaten and I understand that it’s [partly] hate speech which made us to live in conflict until we got divided.”
Mr. Maina thinks denying the existence of hate speech in the community is a matter of scale, as people see what happens between different communities as the bigger problem. But the workshop revealed otherwise.
“With one or two interventions, it was clear that they, even within one community, have had divisions, and sections of them had to be taken into a different camp. When that was pointed out, then they began indicating, ‘oh, you mean that one?’ meaning that the scale of what they were thinking is what is intercommunity, not intracommunity,” he said, referring to what he witnessed during the workshop.
Mr. Maina also says no community is immune to hate speech, hence the importance of such workshops.
“It’s to begin to realize that hate speech survives even in families. It survives at village level, at ethnic, at racial level, and people can use any of the protected characteristics to just have irrational detestation of the other,” he said, emphasizing the need to create awareness and acknowledgement of this fact.
“So, once they have that better understanding of how to identify [hate speech] and its effects then we can, together, build strategies on mitigating, because it’s totally impossible to eliminate hate speech in any society, but you can mitigate its effects,” Maina went further.
Bishop Isaiah Majok Dau, a board member of the South Sudan Council of Churches, sees the crucial significance of this and similar workshops at this point in South Sudan.
“I think it’s important, number one, because it’s coming immediately after the signing of the agreement in our country,” he said, referring to the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan.
“Secondly, words are powerful; especially [the] words that the leaders speak. The Bible says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. So, we can make a choice to speak good, and it will come to pass, because whatever we say has power,” the Bishop added, invoking Biblical wisdom.
Asked if averting hate speech would contribute to peace in South Sudan, the bishop was unequivocal in his response:
“I believe so, especially leaders. All leaders across the board – political leaders, religious leaders, community leaders; if they change their language, they’ll change the lives of the people and they’ll change the situation. But if they speak otherwise, it’ll just be a vicious cycle.”