RfP speaks at UN Forum on Minority Issues: linking hate speech to wider violations
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
The United Nations Forum on Minority Issues convened its 13th session from 19 -20 November 2020. It focused on the theme of 'Hate Speech, Social Media and Minorities'. Rights For Peace delivered an oral statement on the need link the bias intent evidenced in hate speech with wider violations. The event can be viewed on UN TV here. Following the meeting we also submitted a joint report to the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues available here.
In recent years, hate speech has moved into the mainstream in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike. Amid a rising tide of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, minorities are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt, with some reports suggesting they are targeted in more than 75% of hate speech and hate crime incidents.
As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently highlighted, social media has had a large part to play in this, often being ‘exploited as a platform for bigotry’. Thanks to this new technology, peddlers of racist and xenophobic conspiracy theories have been able to reach a much larger audience, normalising hate speech against ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.
Hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence towards minorities, as social media has amplified discrimination and incitement that is already occurring offline. Expressions of hate have served to stigmatise those perceived to be the ‘other’, creating a climate of rejection and exclusion pushing minority communities ever further to the margins.
The process of 'othering' through hate speech and propaganda is a key marker of escalating human rights violations, an established stage on the path to genocide and other mass atrocities. As put by Sheri Rosenberg:
"The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech".
Today, the risk of hate speech escalating into wider violations is particularly high in states with ongoing conflicts between different ethnic groups, as seen in our recent post on Cameroon.
We need a sea change in the way hate speech is perceived. Rights for Peace believes hate speech is an important indicator of biased intent, making its documentation and punishment key to preventing mass atrocities. To reflect this, the link between hate motivations and human rights violations should be strengthened in human rights reporting. Human rights treaty bodies and Special Procedures should incorporate a ‘hate prevention’ lens in their work. This way, patterns of identity-based violence could be recognised - and acted upon - sooner.
Many states have put pressure on social media platforms to remove online content deemed harmful. We know that social media algorithms concentrate and amplify extremist views. While this raises concerns about freedom of expression, practical legal frameworks for analysing hate speech exist for this purpose: to understand the context and risk of harm that would render offensive speech unlawful. The Rabat Plan of Action, outlines six criteria to help distinguish an offensive expression from an unlawful expression, thereby prohibited under international human rights law. It is important that social media platforms start to understand the legal implications. Under case law around the crime of incitement to genocide, those that aid and abet such incitement could find themselves responsible for the crime if they were aware that in the normal course of events genocide would occur, even they did not share the genocidal intent, or if the incitement was not necessary for this to occur.
1. In order to prevent and punish the steps that lead to genocide, we believe it is important to connect hateful intent with wider violations.
2. Human rights reporting to and by treaty bodies and special mandates should seek to link hateful intent with other violations to provide a clearer picture of systemic identity-based violence: mainstreaming a hate lens into all human rights work.
3. The importance of front-line organisations working to counter hate-speech should be further recognised, also with dedicated investment.
Rights for Peace has supported several grassroots projects in this area, working with partners on the ground to undertake training, monitoring and reporting on hate-based violations. In South Sudan, for example, it supports the capacity strengthening of youth leaders to improve their understanding and ability to counter prejudice and identity violence, as part of a DFID-funded project.
With Covid-19 encouraging a flare-up of inter-ethnic divisions and tensions, Rights for Peace has also recently supported youth leaders in refugee camps in Northern Uganda to carry out a Covid-19 awareness campaign to combat misinformation and spread messages of peace.
Unfortunately, there’s a lack of investment in this kind of prevention work, owing to the tendency to view instances of hate speech as isolated phenomena. For the same reason, public figures stoking resentment of minorities all too often face no consequences for their actions, emboldening them to intensify their message of hate.
 OHCHR UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, ‘Hate speech, social media and minorities’, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Minorities/SR/HateSpeechSocialMediaMinorities_EN.pdf
 UN Secretary General, ‘Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech’, https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/UN%20Strategy%20and%20Plan%20of%20Action%20on%20Hate%20Speech%2018%20June%20SYNOPSIS.pdf
 International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Prosecutor v. Musema, Case No. ICTR-96-13, Trial Chamber, 27 December 2000, paras. 181-183. On complicity to genocide, see: Prosecutor v. Akayesu, Case No. ICTR-96-4-T, Trial Judgment, 2 September 1998, para. 451.