Jun 16,2022 – JORDAN TIMES / UN Human Rights Regional Office
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that humanity is fragile and life is precious. For many of us, the insular existence of social distancing was deeply isolating, frightening and traumatic. Grievances with the conditions of the pandemic saw people lash out in online fora, propagating dis- and misinformation, and even blaming individuals and groups for spreading the virus. Xenophobia and hate speech were rampant in a time where community and solidarity were needed more than ever.
As we tentatively emerge from COVID’s shadow, online and offline hostilities, smear and disinformation campaigns continue unabatedly. In a sense, this should come as no surprise: Hate speech has been around long before the pandemic. We need only recall horrifying examples such as Rwanda, where vicious hate propaganda catalysed unimaginable atrocity crimes, including genocide. Though the contexts may change, the targets tend to be the same, society’s most marginalised and at-risk. This includes ethnic and religious minorities, women, refugees and migrants, people of colour, victims of racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny.
As the old adage goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case in practice. Words can be weapons. Hate speech online can cause harm in real life. Hate speech is in itself an attack on tolerance, inclusion, diversity, and the very essence of human rights. It further undermines social cohesion, erodes shared values and can lay the foundation for violence.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not immune to the ills of hate speech. Communities across the region have encountered unimaginable horrors at the hands of non-state groups who have used elaborate propaganda methods to rally hate. Daesh was devastatingly effective in their hateful rhetoric and propaganda against ethnic and religious groups, such as the Yazidi and Christian communities, but also against Muslims.
There have also been incidents across the region of religious clerics preaching messages of intolerance, in particular against minority religions and triggering real acts of aggression. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has further exposed toxic and dangerous hate speech. United Nations human rights experts have condemned hate speech and incitement to violence against Palestinians by extreme Israeli right wing groups, as we saw last month when such groups marched through the Old City of Jerusalem chanting deeply offensive and racist messages inciting to violence.
How then should we address hate speech? We must first ensure that whatever strategy we adopt fully respects the human right to freedom of expression, essential to the realisation of other human rights and the cornerstone of democracy. Freedom of expression not only protects the right to express views that are favourably received, but also those that express critical and divergent views. Importantly, expressing criticism of public officials and public institutions cannot be characterised as hate speech or justify the restriction of the right to freedom of expression.
The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, 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”.
Hate speech, thus defined, should in most cases not be made illegal; only when it reaches the level of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence does international law call for its proscription. Incitement is a very dangerous form of speech, because it explicitly and deliberately aims at triggering real harm, which may also include terrorism or atrocity crimes.
Rather than criminalising hate speech that does not rise to the level of incitement, the best way to address hate speech is through more speech, not less. More public discourse and campaigns against discrimination; more speaking out for victims of hate speech; more public initiatives and exchanges to celebrate diversity. Tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all, governments, societies, the private sector, starting with individual women and men. In addition, education is key to addressing hate speech, in this the digital age, we must support a new generation of digital citizens, empowered to recognise, reject and stand up to hate speech.
As UN Secretary General António Guterres has stressed, diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Political leaders and parliamentarians must refrain from fuelling hateful narratives, and speak out against discrimination in all its forms. They should use their public platform to promote diversity, pluralism and mutual respect among individuals and communities. Religious leaders also have a crucial role in speaking out against hate speech, expressing solidarity with those targeted by such expressions, and amplifying messages that serve to reduce discrimination. In the MENA region and beyond, dialogue among different faiths and religions is essential to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among people. Indeed, the moral imperatives of all religions, convictions and beliefs call for peace, tolerance and mutual understanding.
The media, too, should promote tolerance and respect for religious and cultural diversity, and human rights for all. It should ensure fact-checked and unbiased news coverage, free from derogatory stereotyping or labelling, while at the same time using its platform to cover inclusive public interest stories reflecting society’s diversity.
Similarly, social media companies must maximise access to pluralistic information, as well as promote transparency on how they curate and moderate content. They should also provide for effective and accessible redress channels for people targeted by incitement or censorship online.
Today, as we mark the first International Day for Countering Hate Speech, we must remind ourselves that hatred is a danger to everyone, and so fighting it must be a job for everyone. We can all take action to say #NoToHate.
The article is a joint statement by the UN Human Rights Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa and the UN Information Centre in Beirut