Amid Rise in Misinformation, Hate Speech as Weapon of War, Strategic Communications Is Crucial to Achieve Peacekeeping Aims, Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council high-level debate on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations:  The Key Role of Strategic Communications, in New York today:

I thank the Government of Brazil for organizing this discussion — and I commend your vision and foresight in choosing this topic.

For the first time, this Council is devoting a high-level debate to the critical role of strategic communications in peacekeeping operations.  And you are helping to highlight a fundamental point.  Communications is not a side issue or an afterthought.  More than ever, strategic communications is central to the success of all our work.

As I said when I was sworn in as Secretary-General in 2016:  “We must be able to communicate better about what we do, in ways that everybody understands.  We need a substantial reform of our communications strategy, upgrading our tools and platforms to reach people around the world.”

In the years since, we have embarked on an ambitious global communications strategy to do just that — and we are determined to do more.  Our communications work, after all, is designed not just to inform, but to engage audiences in support of the vital mission of the United Nations.

Strategic communications in peacekeeping illustrates precisely why this is so crucial.  The landscape in which our peacekeepers operate is more hazardous today than any time in recent memory.  Geopolitical tensions at the global level reverberate locally.  Conflicts are more complex and multi-layered.  International discord often translates into heightened tensions on the ground, with warring parties disincentivized from making the necessary concessions for peace.

Peacekeepers are facing terrorists, criminals, armed groups and their allies — many with access to powerful modern weapons, and many with a vested interest in perpetuating the chaos in which they thrive.  The weapons they wield are not just guns and explosives.  Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech are increasingly being used as weapons of war.  The aim is clear:  to dehumanize the so-called other, threaten vulnerable communities — as well as peacekeepers themselves — and even give open license to commit atrocities.

For all these reasons, strategic communications is critical across the spectrum of our peacekeeping mandate and crucial to achieving our mission.  To protect civilians and prevent violence.  To secure ceasefires and safeguard political settlements.  To investigate and report on human rights abuses and violations.  To advance the women, peace and security agenda and promote the role of women as peacekeepers, peace makers and peace leaders.  And all the while, ensure the safety and security of our peacekeepers and the communities they serve.

That is why strategic communications is a top priority within the Action for Peacekeeping+ initiative.  We know disinformation is not just misleading, it is dangerous and potentially deadly.  It fuels open violence against our personnel and partners.  It transforms our blue flag from a symbol of security into a target for attack.

A recent survey found that nearly half of all peacekeepers consider mis- and disinformation to severely impact mandate implementation and threaten their safety and security.  We see more and more instances where fake news spreads like wildfire, obstructing our missions from carrying out their life-saving and life‑changing work.  To give just one example:  In Mali, a fake letter alleging our peacekeepers were collaborating with armed groups was posted on Facebook.  It went viral on WhatsApp and was picked up by national media.  This fake letter stirred up hostility and resentment towards our peacekeepers, making their vital task of protecting civilians that much harder.

Strategic communications — credible, accurate and human-centred — is one of our best and most cost-effective instruments to counter this threat.  And more than just defusing harmful lies, engaging in tailored two-way communication itself builds trust, as well as political and public support.  It strengthens the understanding amongst the local population of our missions and mandates — and in return, strengthens our peacekeepers’ understanding of the local population’s concerns, grievances, expectations and hopes.

It can create a safe space for reconciliation and peacebuilding to work and provide women, young people and civil society with greater access to peace processes.  But, to be effective, it must be grounded in evidence, based on verified data, open to dialogue, rooted in storytelling and delivered by credible messengers.

Allow me to briefly outline six concrete actions we are taking to improve strategic communications in peacekeeping.  First, we are adopting a whole-of-mission approach across uniformed and civilian components to foster a networked communication in the field.  To that end, we are looking for military and police officers skilled in strategic communications.  I encourage all contributing countries to provide personnel with such skillsets — because any effective strategic communications strategy requires properly staffed and equipped communications teams to implement it.

Second, we are holding mission leaders accountable to own and lead strategic communications — and to ensure it is fully integrated into all aspects of mission planning and decision-making.  Third, we are providing guidance and training to missions, including collecting and sharing best practices.  Fourth, we are working with partners — including tech and media companies, and Member States — to identify and deploy the best tools to better detect and counter mis- and disinformation and hate speech.

Fifth, we are continuously monitoring and evaluating the efficacy of our information campaigns to ensure we adjust as necessary — adapting our strategy to the tactical necessities of the specific contexts we operate in.  While we live in an increasingly digital world, direct person-to-person communication often remains the most powerful way to build trust and counter false narratives.  That is why our missions continue to conduct town-hall style gatherings in local communities with village elders, young people, women's groups and others to learn and to listen.

And sixth, we are deploying strategic communications to strengthen accountability and support efforts to end misconduct by personnel and partners — including combatting sexual exploitation and abuse.

At its best, United Nations peacekeeping is a remarkable enterprise of multilateralism and international solidarity.  But, for it to succeed amidst new threats and mounting challenges, all of us must play our part — and all aspects of our operations must adapt to new realities.  The field of communications is taking on ever-greater importance.

The United Nations must play a more deliberate role as an information actor in conflict environments.  We must be seen as a trusted source of information by providing engaging, factual content, facilitating inclusive dialogue, demanding the removal of harmful speech, calling leaders to account and promoting the voices of peace and unity.  Member States — particularly those present on the ground alongside our peacekeepers — are crucial partners in this critical effort.

Access to information is a human right — in the places where our peacekeepers operate, it can be a matter of life and death, and the difference between peace and war.  I look forward to working with this Council to strengthen our peacekeeping operations through improved strategic communications, and to pursue our shared goal of peace.

For information media. Not an official record.