Over the recent years, the number of attacks by violent extremists has been on the rise in societies across the world. This threat affects the security and well-being of many individuals, posing a global threat to peaceful and sustainable ways of life. Violent extremism is not confined to any age, group or gender. However, young people are particularly vulnerable. This calls for new efforts to empower young women and men, to strengthen their ability to think critically and challenge simplistic and one-dimensional truths. To address this issue, an international conference took place from 17 to 19 May in Beirut, Lebanon, under the theme Youth and ICT: Towards Countering Violent Extremism in Cyberspace.
Organized by the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO in cooperation with UNESCO’s Information for All Programme (IFAP), UNESCO’s Beirut Office and the Rotary Club of Beirut, the event gathered about 200 participants including scholars, policy makers and researchers from 20 countries*. Participants stressed the urgency of tackling the issue of violent extremism in cyberspace, which is affecting lives of many people including children.
Addressing the Conference, Mr André Kassass representing the Lebanese Minister of Information reiterated that officials, media and civil society must find a common space to counter deliberate attempts by extremists to distort religion. “It is imperative that we address the emotional approach in religious discourse to prevent the dissemination of hatred […]. This requires constructive dialogue, mutual trust and a common conviction that there is a need to change misconceptions, which are at the core of fanaticism,” he said.
Chafica Haddad, Chair of UNESCO’s Information for All Programme (IFAP), said, “I look forward to the outcomes of this major event that will draw the way ahead for our efforts to nurture Internet for peace and dialogue, and teach young people how to live together peacefully regardless of their religious, ethnic, cultural and other differences. We need to give young people hope and a sense of worth, provide them with jobs and education and allow them to participate in building a peaceful future.”
Prof. Henri Awit, the President of the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO, stressed that extremism, regardless of its patterns, methods and manifestations, is based on refusing to acknowledge differences and relies on hostility and violence. “This international Conference provided an opportunity for participants, particularly youth, to exchange ideas and experiences with the objective of exploring ways to prevent radicalization, which leads to violent extremism, discrimination and hatred.”
Marc Hecker, from the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), argued that three methods that are currently used to address the issue of violent extremism in the cyberspace are the following: Intelligence, which aims to identify the individuals who produce illegal contents and to gather proof that can be used in the judicial system, blocking or taking down illegal content, and offering counter-narratives. “Several governments have developed online campaigns to deconstruct radical arguments. However, the most efficient campaigns are often led by private actors. Hence, it is crucial to mobilize civil society – especially youth organizations – to fight against violent extremism in cyberspace,” said Hecker.
Dr Boyan Radoykov, from UNESCO's Knowledge Societies Division, identified challenges and emphasized the progress to date. The prevention of youth radicalization leading to violence requires long-term mobilization and greater consistency in the application of working solutions, he said. "History teaches us that there is no undestroyed evil! Each generation must face its own evils with courage and determination. We have a huge responsibility to transmit to the next generation a world with the current evils duly annihilated,” stated Radoykov. He also noted that young people deserve to receive knowledge, universal values and a peaceful environment, all of which is essential to their personal and collective fulfilment. “Knowledge will give them confidence in facing the pitfalls of illusory promises by traders of abject atrocities. Humanist values, for centuries, have paved the way for the victory of civilization over barbarism. A peaceful environment is indispensable for empowering people and transforming societies," he added.
Speakers at the Conference voiced commitment to facilitate access to all types of information and communication platforms, and to promote narratives that condemn violence and hate speech, encouraging inclusion, equality, intercultural dialogue and peace.
On 19 May, the Conference adopted the Final Statement, which calls for effective measures to prevent and combat the online propagation of violence, as well as for using Internet to promote a culture of peace.
The Beirut Conference was the third in a series of events organized by UNESCO and the Information for All Programme (IFAP) following the first international conference on the same subject at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 16 and 17 June 2015, Youth and the Internet: Fighting Radicalization and Extremism, and the Internet and the Radicalization of Youth: Preventing, Acting and Living together conference organized by UNESCO and the Government of Quebec from 30 October to 1 November 2016 in Quebec, Canada.
* Algeria, Botswana, Egypt, France, Ghana, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Netherlands, Oman, Russian Federation, Senegal, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Qatar.