Toronto NGO debuts online early warning alert for genocides
Photos of killed people donated by survivors are displayed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, depicting the horros of Rwanda's genocide. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)
In the years leading up to World War II, long before the construction of gas chambers, Nazi party leaders hardly kept their feelings about Jews a secret.
Six years before the outbreak of war, on Apr. 1, 1933, the Nazis organized a countrywide anti-Jewish boycott, using radio and newspapers, the main media outlets of the day, to spread their message.
Decades later, before any Tutsis had been killed with machetes, Hutu leaders in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 used a local radio station, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, to spew venom attacks about Tutsis, comparing them to cockroaches.
Both examples are a reminder, Chris Tuckwood says, that genocides typically follow a host of early warning signals.
Tuckwood, 28, is one of the co-founders of a new Toronto-based non-profit called The Sentinel Project, which organizers say is dedicated to hate-speech detection and alerts.
Its 60 volunteers have begun monitoring hate speech in Kenya, Myanmar, Colombia, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Iran.
“We’re watching Iran pretty closely,” Tuckwood said. “What we’re seeing with the Bahai religious minority is concerning. The discrimination they face is quite advanced. They’re excluded from public life, can’t get public-sector jobs, aren’t allowed education after high school, and their homes are frequent victims of vandalism.”
Some Iranians, who are followers of Shiite Islam believe Bahaism is tantamount to blasphemy because it promotes the belief in a 19th century prophet.
In Hungary and other parts of Europe, Roma claim to be victims of persecution, and hate speech is even visible in the U.S. So why isn't the upstart NGO monitoring those countries?
"It's a good point," Tuckwood said. "We would do more right away if we had the resources."
Among the tools offered by Sentinel is an Internet application called Hatebase, which combs social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and local language news sites and blogs in a search of words that may signal brewing ethnic conflict.
The interface, developer Timothy Quinn, allows users to refine hate speech terms by region and use mapping to document when and how hate speech is used.
For instance, the database includes a number of derogatory names and their definitions. Users can click “I have been called this” or “I have overheard someone else called this” and document where on a Google world map the slur occurred.
It’s a similar method to one being used by health researchers who map the outbreak of communicable diseases.
“People use Twitter to cite and follow Hollywood stars, so why not use the same tool to identify threats like this?” said Jack Chow, the U.S. ambassador on global HIV/AIDS from 2001-3 who is on Sentinel’s advisory board.
Tuckwood, a former Canadian soldier who has his masters degree in disaster management, said he's hoping Jewish and Armenian communities, both of which are sensitive to hate-speech issues, will offer funding to allow them to hire fulltime staff.
It’s not easy to set up a new NGO, Tuckwood concedes. But he says his group’s independence offers them a free voice.
“If you look at the UN adviser focused on genocide, there’s so much baggage that comes along with making a statement about the risk of genocide in a particular country,” Tuckwood said. “When they do say something, it’s always in the typical, bland, diplomatic language. But we can say what we see and don’t have to worry about conversations happening only behind closed doors.”
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead