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GA/SPD/734
15 October 2021
Seventy-sixth Session, 7th Meeting (PM)

Officials Outline United Nations Fight against Disinformation on Multiple Fronts as Fourth Committee Takes Up Questions Related to Information

Members also Hold Interactive Sessions on Assistance in Mine Action, Activities of University for Peace

United Nations initiatives to counter disinformation — especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and to provide populations around the globe with reliable and evidence-based content, were among several topics spotlighted today as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) took up questions relating to information.

The Committee also heard introductory statements and held interactive question-and-answer sessions on the United Nations assistance in mine action and on the Organization’s four-decades-old University for Peace.

Drawing attention to the emergence of a global “infodemic”, Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, outlined the activities of her Department’s Verified initiative, which paves a path towards fighting false information.  The initiative provides a replicable model of how to create and share digital content targeting national and local audiences, she said, noting that Verified has created more than 2,000 individual pieces of content in over 60 languages.  Its widespread impact is largely due to efforts of United Nations Information Centres and communications officers within Resident Coordinators’ offices around the globe.

Outlining other achievements in countering false information, she said the Department is engaging with some of the technology sector’s largest companies to address the role “big tech” plays in the spread of disinformation.  In a recent move, the tech giant Google agreed that whenever its users search the words “climate change”, they will see links to United Nations content first.

Turning to the issue of multilingualism, she underscored that the Department’s content increasingly appears across a range of multilingual platforms, from United Nations News and social media accounts to publications such as the UN Chronicle and the Organization’s website itself.  The United Nations YouTube channel has also experienced audience growth of 150 per cent over the past year.  Meanwhile, the Department’s nimble teams also helped manage communications responses to the world’s latest crises — such as those in Afghanistan, Haiti and Ethiopia — under the aegis of the United Nations Communications Group.

In a similar vein, Darren Camilleri (Malta), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, noted that the rise of pandemic-related disinformation was among the main issues discussed at the Committee’s most recent meeting.  In that regard, the Committee’s members requested that the Department of Global Communication continue countering disinformation, including through the Verified initiative.  They also recommended that the Department take additional steps to bridge the digital divide and produce more inclusive types of media.

In his address to the Committee, Francisco Rojas Aravena, Rector of the University for Peace, described ways in which the University trains new leaders to understand the deep roots of conflicts and to use such tools as negotiation, mediation and prevention.  The University recently opened its headquarters in Somalia, where 75 master’s and doctoral students graduated after specializing in such areas as Peace, Governance and Development, International Law and Human Rights and Humanitarian Action.  Meanwhile, the University developed courses on post-conflict issues in Colombia and launched a set of programmes helping journalists deal with fake news and hate speech in the electoral context in Honduras.

In the interactive dialogue on the item “Questions related to information”, delegates welcomed the success of the Verified campaign in combating disinformation around the globe.  The representative of Morocco said the campaign contributed to rebuilding public confidence in the United Nations and saved lives by providing people targeted by disinformation with reliable and evidence-based content.  The representative of Spain, speaking on behalf of the European Union, acknowledged the agility as well as the quantity and quality of the initiatives in the field of fighting disinformation undertaken by the Department of Global Communications.

Also speaking today, and responding to questions and comments, was Ilene Cohn, Acting Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service.

The representatives of Costa Rica, the Philippines, Sudan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Japan, the Russian Federation, Egypt and Colombia also participated.

The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Monday, 19 October, to hear introductory statements and questions on several agenda items.

University for Peace

FRANCISCO ROJAS ARAVENA, Rector of the University for Peace, describing his institution as an international academic entity established by the General Assembly in 1980, said the University was able to continue its work throughout the COVID‑19 pandemic by following rigorous protocols and preventive measures.  Among other things, it seeks to empower its students to advance the Sustainable Development Goals and address the serious global problems inherited from before, and exacerbated by, the pandemic.  Detailing the uncertainties and inequalities which currently permeate the world, he said it is the role of the University for Peace to train new leaders who can understand the deep roots of conflicts and draw on knowledge in the areas of negotiation, mediation and prevention to lay the foundations for effective cooperation for a harmonious and better world.

Spotlighting several successful joint programmes with United Nations agencies, as well as the Asian Peacebuilders Scholarship programme, he noted the sustained support of various philanthropic institutions and States for the University's nine master’s and doctoral programmes.  He went on to underline the signing of cooperation agreements with different diplomatic schools in the Middle East and the Arab world aimed at teaching the essential values of the United Nations and conflict resolution.  In particular, he drew attention to agreements signed with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates.  He also pointed to an exhibition of the works of a Saudi Arabian artist at the Vatican as well as the establishment of a specialized Master’s Degree in Religion, Culture and Peace Studies, which seeks to eradicate hate speech.

In Africa, he said, the University recently opened its headquarters in Somalia, in the context of the graduation of 75 master’s and doctoral students in four areas of specialization of high relevance to Somalia — Peace, Governance and Development; International Law and Human Rights; Disaster, Resilience and Leadership; and Humanitarian Action.  Meanwhile, in the Americas, in collaboration with various United Nations entities, the University developed courses on post-conflict issues in Colombia, courses on negotiation and training of youth leaders in Venezuela, teaching workshops on gender in Mexico and a set of programmes helping journalists deal with fake news and hate speech in the electoral context in Honduras.  In addition, for the Central American area, the University developed a training programme for journalists, with an emphasis on new communication technologies.

He went on to note that the University’s more than 3,800 graduates — over 65 per cent of them women — are today contributing to advancing the United Nations values in more than 100 countries.  More than 125,000 people have passed through the University’s training courses and diploma programmes around the world.  Concluding, he thanked the Government of Costa Rica for guidance and support provided to the University for Peace over the last 40 years.

The floor was then opened for an interactive question-and-answer session with the University’s rector.

The representative of Costa Rica praised the University for Peace’s creativity and devotion to its curriculum and programmes during the COVID‑19 crisis.  Highlighting the University’s tireless efforts to expand its work, he welcomed its three new master’s programmes, which have been recently established based on the principle of multicultural understanding.

The representative of the Philippines recalled the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, specifically the recommendation to think “long term” so as to provide young people with a better future.  In that context, he asked how the University for Peace plans to respond to such a call from the Secretary-General.

Mr. ROJAS, responding to the representative of Philippines, said the University’s main task is to train people to conduct negotiations and to mediate and design conflict-prevention activities.  He noted that prevention will help avoid a situation in which the problems of today are exacerbated.  Referring to the Secretary-General’s report on the University, he said traditional and emerging problems, including climate change, remain persistent and particularly affect small coastal countries.  To address that challenge, the University is training people in prevention and creating the resilience that is vital for those coastal nations, he said, outlining specific programmes in peace studies, human rights and environmental studies.

The representative of Sudan asked whether the University plans to open any new programmes in Africa and the Middle East.

Responding, Mr. ROJAS recalled that the University recently opened the headquarters in Somalia, where he attended a graduation ceremony of 75 young leaders for peace.  One of these graduates was the country’s Minister for Education, who urged the University to develop a national programme on peace education for schools across Somalia.  Highlighting the need to generate a culture of peace and non-violence, he referred to the University’s Master’s programmes in international law and human rights, disaster resilience and leadership, and humanitarian action, which are already delivered throughout Africa.

Assistance in mine action

ILENE COHN, Acting Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on that item (document A/76/283), said the COVID‑19 pandemic had a serious impact on the United Nations mine action programmes.  Nevertheless, the sector demonstrated resilience and adaptability. Highlighting some positive results, she noted that casualties caused by explosive ordnance incidents dropped by 35 per cent between 2019 and 2020, likely linked to COVID‑19-related mobility and data-collection restrictions.  Some 7.3 million people were reached with risk education through face-to-face interventions in 2019 and 2020, with many more accessed through remote means, such as text messaging to mobile phones.

Another positive development, she said, was the increase in the number of countries and territories with legislative frameworks and gender strategies for mine action, as well as a growing emphasis on local capacity development to take on risk education, survey tasks and clearance tasks.  Turning to assistance provided to victims, she pointed to a growing number of countries and territories that have put in place national coordination mechanisms and action programmes, as well as document referral pathways. The needs of survivors and persons with disabilities have been integrated into policy development and humanitarian responses in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Sudan, where national action plans and strategies for disability inclusion and victim assistance were developed, often with United Nations support.  Nonetheless, more financial and advocacy support is needed in those areas.

Turning to a range of concerning trends, she emphasized the evolving threat of improvised explosive devices, including new methods of deployment and new areas of contamination following hostilities, as well as the slow pace of universalization of treaties related to mine action.  To that end, she drew attention to the recommendations indicated in the Secretary-General’s report, which include, among others, the need to preserve the lessons learned during the pandemic, to increase partnerships with local actors, and to increase national capacity to prevent and respond to the threats posed by improvised explosive devices.  There is also a need to scale up financial support to humanitarian mine action work, including through the Mine Action Area of Responsibility within the Global Protection Cluster, she said.

Representatives then engaged in an interactive discussion on that topic.

The representative of Azerbaijan expressed disappointment that language in the fourth paragraph of the Committee’s draft resolution on “Assistance in mine action” refers to internationally recognized parts of Azerbaijan in a distorted manner.  Noting that the official names of territories in Azerbaijan are contained in United Nations guidance documents, he requested that the Secretariat correct that paragraph.

The representative of Iran noted that his country faces unilateral coercive measures that prevent it from effectively carrying out demining activities.  In that context, he urged the United Nations Mine Action Service to assist countries impacted by sanctions with obtaining supplies and asked the Acting Director to elaborate on the ways in which the Service can further assist countries such as Iran.

The representative of Sudan expressed gratitude for the United Nations Mine Action Service’s activities and programmes.

The representative of Japan said mines and other explosives pose a serious threat to human security and claims thousands of lives annually.  Therefore, Japan has contributed $4 million to support the work of the Mine Action Service.  He went on to ask the Acting Director to share successful examples of operations in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic, as well as to elaborate on the impact of abandoned improvised explosive devices on the Afghan people and humanitarian workers.

Ms. COHN, responding to the representative of Azerbaijan, said the Service will look at the specific language issue raised.  To the question posed by Iran, she said the Mine Action Service responds to the Security Council’s mandates and to requests from Resident Coordinators to address contamination in Member States and will continue to do so.  She went on to thank the representative of Sudan for his country’s constructive cooperation with the Mine Action Service.

Responding to the questions from the representative of Japan, she said the Service uses innovative tools to reach out to target audiences by building risk messaging into health-related messages.  That includes text messaging as well as use of radio and billboards.  On its work in Afghanistan — where improvised explosive mines are the leading cause of casualties — she said that, in light of recent developments, 70 per cent of the Afghan mine action section remains operational and has been able to be out and survey to assess the scope of contamination in areas that were previously off-limits.  The outcomes of the survey will be used to frame proposals for the future response within the larger United Nations humanitarian response, she added.

Questions relating to information

DARREN CAMILLERI (Malta), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, introduced the report of that body’s forty-third session (document A/76/21).  He outlined some of the main issues discussed at the meeting, including the rise of pandemic-related disinformation.  Many speakers stressed the need for the Department of Global Communication to continue to counter disinformation and expressed appreciation for its Verified initiative.  Under-Secretary-General Melissa Fleming reported on the Department’s work at the Committee’s session, saying the COVID‑19 crisis presented an immediate test of the Department’s new strategy.

He went on to note that most representatives at the Committee on Information’s latest session stressed that United Nations communications need to be more rapid and strategic.  Several delegations expressed concern over the growing digital divide, which widened during the pandemic, and urged the Department to take greater steps to bridge that gap.  Speakers also highlighted the need for more inclusive types of media, such as closed-captioned videos and sign language translation.  On the issue of multilingualism, many delegations highlighted the need to produce content across the United Nations’ six official languages, as opposed to offering simple content translation.  Recognition and praise for the United Nations Information Centres was consistent, he reported, adding that many speakers called for enhanced promotion of peacekeepers and peacekeeping operations.

MELISSA FLEMING, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document A/76/278), said one of the most insidious impacts of the COVID‑19 pandemic has been the emergence of a global “infodemic”, initially around the virus but now around vaccines as well.  However, disinformation plagues many issues and is especially prominent in the climate sphere.  As a result, the Department is moving to establish a dedicated capacity to both track and counter misinformation across a range of topics.  Its Verified initiative, for example, has created more than 2,000 individual pieces of content in over 60 languages that have been generated and disseminated through the initiative, an impact largely due to efforts of United Nations Information Centres and the communications officers within Resident Coordinators’ offices.

  Noting the outsized role “big tech” plays in the spread of disinformation, she reported that the Department is engaging with some of the sector’s largest companies to reverse the trend.  The tech giant Google recently agreed that whenever its users search the words “climate change”, they will see links to United Nations content first.  Meanwhile, the Department’s content increasingly appears across a range of multilingual platforms, from United Nations News and social media accounts to publications such as the “UN Chronicle” and the Organization’s website itself.  As a result, the United Nations YouTube channel experienced audience growth of 150 per cent over the past year.  Outlining ways in which the Department connects with youth audiences unfamiliar with the 2030 Agenda, she recalled that this year’s “SDG Moment” featured the musical group BTS recording a video at United Nations Headquarters and sitting down for a television interview.  Currently, the BTS music video has had more than 31 million views, and the SDG Moment itself has been seen by at least 6.6 million viewers, she said.

Highlighting the Department’s strategic approach, which prioritizes advance planning, she said it has created nimble teams and mechanisms to manage the communications response to the world’s latest crises — such as those in Afghanistan, Haiti and Ethiopia — under the aegis of the United Nations Communications Group.  Turning to the Department’s pandemic-related adaptations, she reported that Visitors Services operations in Geneva and Vienna resumed on a smaller scale in September.  The Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship was conducted as a fully virtual programme for the first time in 2021.  A new Department publication, “From My Window:  Children at home during COVID‑19”, was distributed worldwide and published in print and digital formats, receiving at least 4 million online views.  She also highlighted several additional Department efforts, including a digital campaign for World Health Day featuring the animated character Peter Rabbit and his friends, for which the Department teamed up with Sony Pictures, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Foundation.

The Committee then opened an interactive discussion on the item “Questions related to information”.

The representative of Morocco, describing misinformation as an existential threat to humanity, praised the success of the Verified campaign launched by the Department of Global Communications since the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic. She further noted that the campaign contributed to rebuilding public confidence in the United Nations and saved lives by providing people targeted by disinformation with reliable and evidence-based content.  Highlighting other initiatives implemented by the Department, which provided sustainable solutions to misinformation, she asked the Under-Secretary-General to detail events conducted during Global Media Literacy and Information Week.  Drawing attention to disinformation and hate speech, which greatly affect United Nations peacekeeping operations, she asked how the Department can support the latter in countering disinformation campaigns.

The representative of Spain, speaking on behalf of the European Union, noted that the Department of Global Communications demonstrated agility in its activities and the way it stepped up dialogue with Member States and others during the pandemic, including civil society and young people, both men and women. Expressing support for the Department’s communication strategy, she asked whether it plans to assess and update the strategy.  Acknowledging both the quantity and the quality of the initiatives undertaken in the field of fighting disinformation, she asked the Under-Secretary-General to clarify which activities the Department plans to organize during the next Global Media Literacy and Information Week. Turning to multilingualism, she called for more details about activities undertaken by the Department to ensure more inclusivity and transparency.

The representative of the Russian Federation observed that there was a significant decrease in the number of contacts with the Department during the course of the pandemic and asked the Department to be more systematic in informing States about its activities as well as its plan to move towards full working capacity.

The representative of Egypt asked about the restrictions imposed on United Nations Information Centres resulting from the Organization’s recent financial troubles and wondered what effects they have had on their work.

The representative of Sudan noted that the Department needs to focus more attention on the promotion of multilingualism, including the use of local dialects, as well as the continued use of traditional media in areas that have less access to modern technology.

The representative of Colombia asked for more details on the main obstacles to achieving linguistic parity within the Department, and what action it intends to take to address them.

Ms. FLEMING, responding to those questions and comments, said the Department’s approach to fighting disinformation in remote places is to provide templates to peace operations.  Their staff then work alongside United Nations country teams to design specific communication strategies tailored to each situation.  In terms of disinformation around climate change — which remains a significant problem — she said the Department will hold an event to relay the lessons learned after a year and a half working on the Verified initiative, and how it can be applied by Member States and institutions alike.  As for the web streaming portal, she said it will be available in the six official languages by the first quarter of 2022.

In response to the comment made by the representative of the Russian Federation, she acknowledged that there have not yet been many in-person activities, but she expects a to return to normal soon.  In response to the question from the Egyptian delegation, she said there have been some freezes on posts that have impacted the United Nations Information Centres.  However, the Department has been able to fill some of those gaps with the help of Member States and is conducting a strategic review to ensure they are able to meet their mandates.  Turning to the promotion of multilingualism, she said the Department seeks to reach populations through local offices and the Verified initiative, which reached people in 60 languages thanks to the work of in-country teams and partnerships with local media.

To the question raised about the use of traditional media, she pointed out that the Department is doing much more with audio tools, especially in places where the main source of information is radio.  She emphasized the Department’s audience-focused approach.  In terms of language parity, the main obstacle continues to be a financial one, she said, adding that the Department is able to compensate through its field presence.

For information media. Not an official record.