What is Hate Speech?
There is no consensus on a definition for ‘hate speech’ in International Human Rights Law.
Upholding free speech is hugely important to open societies that respect human rights. Human Rights Treaties outlaw offensive speech when it poses a risk or threat to others. Speech that is simply offensive but poses no risk to others is generally NOT considered a human rights violation.
Hate Speech becomes a human rights violation if it incites discrimination, hostility or violence towards a person or a group defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or other factors.
Hate Speech typically targets the ‘other’ in societies. This is manifested through the ‘othering’ of minority groups such as racial, ethnic, religious and cultural minorities, women and the LGBTQI+ community.
In 1997 the Council of Europe issued a recommendation on hate speech which defines it as ‘all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance’.
The 2019 UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines it as communication that ‘attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender, or other identity factor’.
Offensive Speech v. Incitement
Hate Speech as a Precursor to Mass Atrocity Crimes
“Hate speech has been a precursor to atrocity crimes, including genocide, from Rwanda to Bosnia to Cambodia”
- UN Secretary-General, António Guterres
Widely, hate speech is recognised as a stepping-stone to the occurrence of mass atrocity crimes, such as genocide. As
put by academic Sheri P Rosenberg:
‘Genocide is a process, not an event. It did not start with the gas chambers, it started with hate speech'
The Holocaust and the Rwanadan genocide both illustrate how hate speech can fuel acts of genocide. In current and recent crises, such as the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon and the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, hate speech has voiced deeply entrenched prejudices and discrimination. It has preceded and accompanied hate crimes and mass atrocities.
Stanton’s 10 Stages of Genocide recognise genocide as the outcome of a process beginning with the classification of groups of people, often by race, ethnicity or nationality. While this is not necessarily a linear process, his fourth stage identifies ‘dehumanisation’ as 'hate propaganda towards a victim group which depicts members as less than human. This can involve equating people with animals, insects or diseases'.
In 2014, the UN produced a Framework for Analysis for Atrocity Crimes which outlined that atrocity crimes are ‘not spontaneous or isolated events; they are processes, with histories, precursors and triggering factors’. The framework places emphasis on the prevention of atrocity crimes by identifying a number of risk factors. These include ‘enabling circumstances’, which involve ‘inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda campaigns or hate speech’, as well as ‘triggering factors’, comprising partly of ‘acts of incitement or hate propaganda targeting particular groups or individuals’.
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League models the process of mass atrocities through a Pyramid of Hate, illustrating that genocidal acts cannot occur without being upheld by the lower stages that act as a base for mass atrocities. In the Pyramid, Biased Attitudes, such as stereotypes, misinformation and micro-aggressions, form the bedrock that enables escalation of hate and discrimination. It shows a progression towards Acts of Bias, including dehumanisation and slurs, to Discrimination, Violence and, eventually, Genocide.
Prohibition of Hate Speech under International Law
[States Parties] Shall declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin
Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
To date, hate speech is neither wholly defined nor specifically protected against in international human rights law. However, a number of international institutions include provisions which protect against other types of expression, such as incitement to discrimination and dissemination of racist ideas.
Advocacy or promotion of hate
Several international treaties, namely the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), prohibit the advocacy of hate, discrimination, hostility or violence. This is also reflected in the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR).
Advocacy, or promotion, implies the speaker intends to encourage these ideas. Crucially, this means that a speaker who uses offensive language with other intentions, for example, for satire, would not be recognised as advocating hate. A speaker that is merely offensive without seeking to encourage hate in others is also not generally recognised as a human rights violation without other aggravating factors. Therefore, there is a cut-off point between speech informed by bias that is acceptable and hate speech that violates human rights. A six point test or checklist has been developed to help analyse the context and determine when offensive speech becomes unlawful.
Incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence
The ICCPR only prohibits advocacy when it also constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The ACHR also only precludes advocacy which comprises incitement; in this case to ‘lawless violence’. Protection against incitement is enshrined in international and regional treaties and declarations. Article 7 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines the right to equal protection against incitement to discrimination. The Genocide Convention (Article 3(c)) stipulates that states must prohibit ‘any direct and public incitement to commit genocide’. Similarly, Article 20 of ICERD contains protections against incitement of racial discrimination, racial violence and racial hatred. The question as to what constitutes incitement is extremely complex, and there is no universal definition. This can make provisions on incitement both difficult to interpret and implement.
Dissemination of Ideas
Though ICERD prohibits both advocacy and incitement of racist and discriminatory ideas, it also precludes the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority, racial hatred or racial discrimination. In contrast to other treaties, ICERD does not specifically require dissemination to constitute advocacy or incitement in order to be prohibited.
Freedom of Expression
2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
While the right to freedom of expression may seem to be in conflict with prohibitions on hate speech, upholding free speech is vital to a democratic and free society and allows minority views to be voiced.
Freedom of opinion and expression are recognised in the Universal Declaration (UDHR), and in international treaties like the International Covenent (ICCPR) and the Convention on Eliminating Racial Discrimination (ICERD), as well as regional treaties such as the ECHR, ACHPR and ACHR.
Limitations on free speech, including laws that prohibit 'hate speech' are also weaponised by powerful voices to oppress minorities. ICERD and ICCPR allow limitations on freedom of expression when they are lawful and necessary to protect the rights of others, public order or national security. This is also reflected in the ACHR and the ECHR.
Understanding and Interpreting International Law: Looking for Consensus
The Camden Principles were drawn up in 2009 by the NGO, Article 19, with the aim of exploring the relationship between freedom of expression and the promotion of equality. They highlighted a global need for an international consensus about this relationship. The Camden Principles recognise that restrictions on freedom of expression can target disadvantaged groups, which can undermine their access to equality. Equally, they emphasise that certain speech, such as racial hatred, must be prohibited to ensure equality and prevent discrimination. Overall the Camden Principles argue that the two are actually mutually supportive, and too much emphasis has been placed on the conflict between them. They argue that whilst prohibitions on speech should exist, narrow restrictions should be placed on them to prevent any abuse of rights.
The Rabat Plan was the product of a series of expert-level workshops organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Rabat, Morocco in 2012. It includes recommendations on distinctions between freedom of expression and incitement of hatred, specifically to offer a guide for implementing Article 20 of ICCPR. The Rabat Plan set out a 6-part threshold test to create a consensus on this distinction, which takes into account the context, the speaker, their intent, the content of the speech, its extent and the likelihood of harm. The Rabat Plan is used by international, regional and national authorities in assessing incitement of hatred.
In 2019, the UN issued the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech (UNSPAHS) in response to growing levels of hate, xenophobia and racism globally. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recognised that ‘hate is moving into the mainstream’.The plan proposes a two-pronged method to tackle hate speech: to address root causes and to enable effective UN responses to the impact on societies. It contains 12 commitments, including supporting victims, engaging with new media, and using education to prevent hate speech.
 Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, speaking at the launch of the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.
 "United Against Hate" Interfaith Gathering in New York City, following the Pittsburgh attack, 2018
How is Rights for Peace countering hate speech?
Rights for Peace aims to prevent mass atrocities by intervening earlier on, targeting triggering factors or notable precursors.
We know that hate speech can be a significant precursor to mass atrocity crimes in fragile states. Our work with local organisations in South Sudan and Uganda, among other states, is centred upon promoting peace and challenging hate through workshops, creative competitions and training. Our latest research explores hate speech and incitement of violence in international and domestic law.
Find out more about what we do
Hate Speech and COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated and amplified hate speech worldwide. There has been a rise in scapegoating, stigmatisation and stereotyping of vulnerable communities. The new UN Guidance on Addressing and Countering COVID-19 related Hate Speech reinforces the principle that human rights must be ‘front and centre’ of global COVID-19 response. The guidance offers a set of recommendations for a variety of actors, including the UN system, member states, tech companies, social media, mainstream media and civil society.
Read about the impact of COVID-19 on rising misinformation and hate in South Sudan and Uganda here
Want to support us in countering hate speech?
Please donate whatever you can
1. Council of Europe, Recommendation on hate speech, 1997, COUNCIL OF EUROPE COMMITTEE OF MINISTERS RECOMMENDATION No. R (97) 20
3(A) . Rosenberg, Sheri P. (2012) "Genocide Is a Process, Not an Event," Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 7: Iss. 1: Article 4.
Available at: https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/gsp/vol7/iss1/4
4. See: 1. Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, A Brief and Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the UN in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018, 2019, p. 7, ; 2. PeaceTech Lab, Social Media and Conflict in Cameroon,
6. UN Framework for Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, 2014, Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes
7. Risk Factors 7 and 8, UN Framework for Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, 2014
11. United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, 2019, UNSPAHS