Towards a comprehensive approach to counter hate speech

Article by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 18 June, the United Nations is commemorating the first International Day for Countering Hate Speech and has launched the #NoToHate campaign. In history, hate speech has often preceded violence leading to atrocity crimes. Today, we are witnessing an explosion of hate speech, amplified by social media, also in Europe, as the anonymity that social platforms afford allows users to hide behind their screens.

More and more female politicians – even members of the European Parliament –, women activists and female journalists receive online threats, generally of a misogynistic nature. Often, this leads to self-censorship and sometimes even to women leaving public life.

Hate speech also targets ethnic, racial and religious minority groups, migrants and refugees. During the COVID-19 health crisis we have seen an intensification of verbal insults against these communities. The double victimization of women from minority communities illustrates the intersectionality of racism and xenophobia with misogyny.

We have also witnessed incitement to hatred against the LGBTI community, with some local authorities proclaiming their cities LGBTI-free zones, disproportionate sanctions imposed on LGBTI activists, and a worrying leniency by some authorities towards hate crimes against the LGBTI community.

Yet, hard statistics are difficult to come by, for several reasons: hate speech is often not reported; the authorities may not collect this information, and, if they do, it is not necessarily disaggregated by victim group.

The concept of hate speech

The concept of hate speech is not defined in international law. Instead, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for the prohibition by law of the advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The same treaty affords strong protections for freedom of expression. Thus, a tension exists between guaranteeing free speech and protecting individuals and communities against hate speech.

It can be difficult to determine when exactly speech meets the threshold of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, at which point it ought to be prohibited by law. To assist courts and tribunals in making this determination, the UN has developed the Rabat Plan of Action – a set of criteria to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the context, speaker, intent, content, extent of dissemination of the speech and the likelihood of harm.

In an encouraging move, Meta’s Oversight Board has used the Rabat threshold test in several decisions, referring explicitly to international human rights treaties, principles and recommendations. Regulating social media platforms is particularly complex, and the EU’s Digital Services and Digital Market Acts should strive to strike the right balance with maximum transparency.

When speech does not meet the threshold of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, we should tread carefully and not criminalize or prohibit speech, even if hateful or hurtful, but rather turn to other measures.  There are good reasons to do so: when freedom of expression is unduly restricted, this affects a range of other human rights, like freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and media freedom.

Moreover, as we have seen with COVID-19 measures and with some national legislations against hate speech, European legislations and policies are frequently copied in other parts of the world. There is a real danger that, in less democratic countries, human rights defenders, opposition leaders, academics, trade unionists, grassroot organisers and journalists are silenced through excessive restrictions on freedom of expression. Already now, several countries around the world are using hate speech laws to suppress legitimate dissent or persecute minorities.

Hate speech: a manifestation of discrimination

Hate speech tends to be a manifestation of underlying discrimination. Therefore, measures to tackle hate speech should go hand in hand with measures to tackle discrimination and its root causes.  The EU has made a quantum leap forward in this area since the appointment of a European Commissioner for Equality: equality and inclusion policies were adopted to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, end discrimination against persons with disabilities, and advance gender equality. The EU Framework for Roma Inclusion, if implemented by EU Member States, provides a historic opportunity to grant Roma women, men and children access to their human rights on an equal footing with others.

In its Anti-Racism Action Plan, the European Commission has called on EU Member States to develop national action plans against racism. These plans can be effective in addressing the root causes of hate speech if they adopt a whole-of-society approach and are developed in consultation with discriminated communities. This is also the message in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Agenda for Transformative Change, which seeks to dismantle systemic racism against people of African descent.

Towards a holistic approach

Only a holistic and multi-pronged approach to countering hate speech will prove effective.

Political leaders have a particular responsibility to refrain from hate speech and to officially condemn messages that may incite hatred. To this effect, political parties should adopt and enforce ethical guidelines.

Public figures, journalists, media organizations and national sports authorities should be sensitized about their roles as shapers of public opinion. The UN Human Rights Office has developed tools for reframing narratives on migrants and freeing us from what has become a predominantly negative and often toxic rhetoric. The #Faith4Rights toolkit further offers peer-to-peer learning by faith-based actors on how religious leaders can address hate speech.

A greater effort can also be made to implement the country-specific recommendations from the international human rights mechanisms, like the UN Treaty Bodies, the Universal Periodic Review or the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council.

In addition, States should collect accurate and disaggregated data to intersect the factors and multiple layers of deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination that make certain groups vulnerable to hate speech.

Finally, human rights education is the most powerful strategy to both prevent and counter hate speech, its causes and manifestations. By developing knowledge that allows children and youth to identify and claim human rights, they can recognise their own and other people’s biases and become agents of change.


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