Hate speech is a pervasive social phenomenon that threatens the human rights of its recipients. It occurs at all levels of society, not discriminating between democratic and authoritarian regimes. Many who spout hate speech may discount the power of their words, however, the violent history of the consequences of hate speech tell a different story. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, cited the connection between hate speech and acts of mass violence such as the Rwandan, Bosnian, and Combodian genocides, as well as more recent acts of mass violence in the United States, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. The increasing occurrences of violent acts provide more than enough evidence for the need for legal action to inhibit the use of hate speech in the public sphere.
Why are we talking about it now?
Currently, international law prohibits the “incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence,” requiring that hate speech only be acted upon once it causes harm. In May 2019, the United Nations released a strategy and plan of action to combat hate speech internationally. The document formally defines hate speech to be “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.” The United Nations’ formal definition of hate speech solves the issue of ambiguity regarding hate speech.
It is imperative that free speech be differentiated from hate speech, because as the United Nations’ definition implies, hate speech is not about freely debating ideas but rather an attack upon a specific person or group of people that places them in danger. For example, xenophobic hate speech has led to the “othering” of immigrant and minority communities within the United States creating a crisis at the United States-Mexico border. Hate speech incites violent actions towards communities that often do not have the resources to defend themselves, especially through the legal route.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, suggested that states consider six factors in determining if a statement can be defined as hate speech. These six factors are the context, the speaker’s status, the intent of the statement, the content and form of the statement, its reach, and how likely the hate speech is to incite violence. Furthermore, Kaye suggests that rules against hate speech be enacted by governments that are legal, legitimate, and proportional in their consequences to those who choose to voice their bigotry.
Today, instances of government officials inciting violence through hate speech are prevalent. Therefore, it is important to highlight that high-ranking officials will not be exempt from laws that inhibit the use of hate speech because it is exceedingly dangerous to have officials utter hate speech to their constituents, creating a culture of acceptance of bigotry. Government officials are not exempt from the rule of law because of their station; instead, they should be model citizens for others to follow.
Hate speech works to further marginalize outcast communities. Only by working against it can governments proactively prevent acts of violence against these communities. Speech has huge implications and people must be educated on the power of their words. Additionally, the United Nations is pushing for consequences to emphasize the power of hate speech to all, regardless of intent. One of the key commitments of the United Nations’ Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech is to look at the main inciters of hate speech to guide governments and other legal entities to minimize the root causes while educating inciters.
Where do we go from here?
The internet has become the most powerful tool for peddlers of hate speech to spread their messages. Therefore, this international form of communication requires an international focus to control the spread of hate speech, especially on social media. To be successful in combating hate speech, United Nations officials must convince companies and government entities to take on the costly yet necessary role of monitoring speech to protect the human rights of all people. Through creating partnerships with private sector companies, the United Nations is focused on using media outlets to educate the public about the harms of hate speech and keeping up with technologies to monitor the ways that inciters of hate speech use social media outlets to spread their messages.
Vanessa Real Williams is a sophomore from Angeles City, Philippines. She is studying Public Policy.