“Tendenze dei discorsi d’odio nell’Europa orientale” Dichiarazione di Birgit Van Hout

“Tendenze dei discorsi d’odio nell’Europa orientale” Dichiarazione di Birgit Van Hout, Rappresentante regionale per l’Europa, Ufficio dell’Alto Commissariato delle Nazioni Unite per i Diritti Umani
Affrontare i discorsi di odio e prevenire l’incitamento alla violenza in Europa
Organizzato da Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Consigliere speciale delle Nazioni Unite per la prevenzione del genocidio


10 March 2022

I would like to thank the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide for this timely exchange on addressing hate speech and preventing incitement to violence in Europe.

Root Causes

The question of the root causes of hate speech is not an easy one, and theories diverge. So, let me stick to the explanations of two independent UN Special Rapporteurs who have tried to identify the root causes of hate speech.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Racism has suggested that hate speech flourishes in places with a historical legacy of discrimination, racism or supremacy that has remained unchallenged and unaddressed. This historical legacy constitutes a fertile breeding ground for a contemporary discourse of exclusion that, to a certain extent, has penetrated mainstream society. In some countries, political leaders propagate hatred for electoral purposes. Worryingly, extremist ideologies have in some cases infiltrated the State apparatus.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has observed that hate speech thrives on a combination of fear and contempt that trigger mistrust and even collective hysteria. A sense of crisis, besiegement and threat creates the perfect environment for demonizing those who are considered “others” and who are somehow less deserving. The concept of national identity is instrumentalized to create suspicion of and marginalize minorities. The Special Rapporteur has emphasized the important role of religious leaders in either countering or fuelling hate speech.

Trends / Victims

Now, let me turn to trends and drivers. The current picture of hate speech in Europe is sobering. The 2015 arrival of migrants at EU borders has significantly increased hatred towards migrants, in particular Muslims and People of African Descent.

But also the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be a driver of hate speech. The health crisis intensified verbal insults, harassment, and online hate speech against groups who were already victims of discrimination prior to the pandemic. In several countries of Eastern Europe, for example, the Roma were accused of spreading the virus and presented as a general threat to the population by national or local authorities, but I am sure that my colleague from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) will speak to this.

Yet, hard statistics are difficult to come by, for several reasons. Hate speech is often not reported; States, national human rights institutions or civil society may not collect this information, and, if they do, it is not necessarily disaggregated by victim group.

When it comes to objectively defining which groups are targeted by hate speech, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, in its periodic review of countries of Eastern Europe, has concluded that hate speech targets minority groups, in particular migrants and refugees, Roma, people of African and Asian descent, Jews and Muslims.

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 of authorities towards hate crimes against the LGBTI community.

In addition to hate speech directed at minorities, we are witnessing a rise in hate speech against women in public and political life, amplified by social media platforms. Women human rights defenders, female politicians – even members of the European Parliament –, and journalists receive online threats, generally of a misogynistic nature and often sexualized. Sadly, as has been documented by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, this is leading to self-censorship or, worse, women leaving public life.

Women from minority communities are doubly victimized. Muslim women, for example, are more likely to be targeted than men with expressions of hate, both online and offline, which illustrates the intersectionality of racism and xenophobia with misogyny.

As the former UN Special Rapporteur on Minorities has pointed out, the accessibility and rapidness of the internet provide fertile ground for spreading hateful content. The anonymity that social platforms afford allows users to hide behind their screens and, thereby, avoid repercussions.

The concept of hate speech

The concept of hate speech is not defined in international law. Instead, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for the prohibition of “any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

It can be difficult to determine when exactly speech meets the threshold of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, at which point it must be prohibited. To assist courts and tribunals in this determination, the Rabat Plan of Action puts forward a threshold test, which assesses on a case-by-case basis the context, speaker, intent, content, extent of dissemination and likelihood of harm.

Meta’s Oversight Board has used the Rabat threshold test in several decisions, referring explicitly to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, general comments by human rights Treaty Bodies, reports by UN Special Procedures and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

When the threshold test of the Rabat Plan of Action on incitement to hatred and violence is not met, we should not criminalize or prohibit speech but rather turn to other measures to address hate speech, because when freedom of expression is unduly restricted, this will also impact on other rights, like freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

As we have seen with Covid-19 measures and with some national legislations against hate speech, European examples serve as reference and are frequently copied in other parts of the world. There is thus a real danger that excessive restrictions on freedom of speech may lead to human rights defenders, opposition leaders, and journalists being targeted under hate speech laws in less democratic countries. Regulating platforms is particularly complex, and in countries around the world we see how hate speech laws are used to suppress legitimate dissent or persecute minorities. That is why it is so important that the EU’s Digital Services and Digital Market Acts strike the right balance and ensure maximum transparency.

Regional Efforts

That said, I would like to acknowledge the regional efforts to address both hate speech and the underlying discrimination, of which hate speech is only one manifestation.

We actively contributed to the consultation on the Council of Europe’s draft Recommendation on Combating Hate Speech, which builds on important case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.

We have also seen much greater engagement by the EU on questions of discrimination with the appointment of a European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli. Under her leadership, the EU has adopted several significant equality and inclusion policies.1 We welcome the EU Framework for Roma Inclusion, which if implemented, provides a historic opportunity to enable Roma to enjoy their human rights, provided it also tackles anti-gypsism in the mainstream population. Then, there is the EU Strategy on combating Anti-Semitism, the Gender Equality Strategy and the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy. In the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan, the Commission has called on EU member States to develop National Action Plans against Racism. These NAPARs 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 of our High Commissioner’s Agenda for Transformative Change which seeks to dismantle systemic racism against people of African descent.


Even though other panels will go more in depth on measures to address hate speech and its root causes, I would like to highlight that several international soft law instruments already point to the way forward.2As this meeting sets out to elaborate a regional plan of action, we should ensure a holistic and multi-pronged approach, as well as consistency and complimentarity between international, regional and national measures – not only to ensure legal certainty for States, but also to support multilateralism. I would therefore like to offer the following elements which derive from UN instruments, jurisprudence, and guidance.

At the international level, States should continue to report periodically to the UN Treaty Bodies. I am thinking in particular of the Human Rights Committee, the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. They should provide information on hate speech and discrimination in their countries, as well as measures taken to address these scourges, and make a greater effort to implement the Committees’ recommendations. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency is already making valuable information available to the Treaty Bodies. Equality bodies and civil society, particularly those organizations representing groups that are frequently targeted by hate speech and discrimination, should be empowered to engage with the Treaty Bodies, which are quasi-judicial bodies, so that the experts may consider the broadest range of sources and make SMART recommendations.

In addition to the periodic reviews carried out by the Committees, regular monitoring is also necessary at national level, by the State as well as by independent and diverse equality bodies with sufficient resources to carry out their task, or by national human rights institutions. We look forward, in this regard, to the adoption by the EU of standards for equality bodies.

A greater effort should be made to 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.

Accountability requires action by the whole justice sector. Accountability is essential not only as a fundamental human rights principle, but because accountability builds trust, which in turn encourages victims to come forward and report.

Political leaders have a particular responsibility to refrain from hate speech and to officially condemn messages that may incite violence, hostility or discrimination. 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. Our office has developed tools for reframing narratives on migrants and freeing us from what has become a predominantly negative and often toxic rhetoric.

Public figures, journalists, media organizations and national sports authorities should be sensitized about their roles as shapers of public opinion. Our office has developed tools for reframing narratives on migrants and freeing us from what has become a predominantly negative and often toxic rhetoric.

Our Office has also developed a #Faith4Rights toolkit that offers peer-to-peer learning by faith-based actors on how religious leaders can address hate speech. We have been piloting this toolkit through monthly events with faith-based organizations, academics, UN human rights mechanisms and the Office of the Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide.

Finally, as underscored by our High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the Global Education Ministers Conference last October, 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. Thank you.