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Tackling incitement to hatred in the Asia Pacific region

“The demarcation line between freedom of expression and hate speech has increasingly come under focus. International law and most national constitutions recognize that freedom of expression is not absolute and may be restricted within strictly defined parameters,” noted UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, in a statement opening a seminar in Bangkok, Thailand, that sought to better understand legislation, jurisprudence and policies on incitement to hatred in the Asia Pacific region. 

UN Integrated Mission in Timor Leste celebrating the International Day of Peace © UN Photo/ Martine Perret“In response to challenges related to freedom of expression and incitement to hatred, many governments have reinforced existing law and introduced new punitive measures”, Pillay added. “To provide protection against abuse, excessive state intervention, loose interpretation and selective application of norms, such measures need to be implemented in accordance with international human rights standards and should be subject to review by competent courts.”

At the event, human rights experts said that the region, which stretches from the outer reaches of the Pacific Ocean to the geographic ridges-and-bridges between Asia and Europe and comprises some 60 countries, was characterised by great heterogeneity in terms of the political, economic and legal contexts.

Insufficient ratification of international human rights instruments is a challenge in the region, particularly in regards to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which contains important provisions on freedom of expression and on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred.

The inaccurate and ambiguous wording in legislation enacted by a number of Asia Pacific countries on the issue of freedom of expression, the experts added, may lead to misinterpretation of internationally agreed human rights standards and to negative consequences for rights-holders.

Participants emphasised, moreover, that existing anti-blasphemy laws in a number of countries of the region have negatively affected the human rights of religious minorities and their relationships within their own community of faith as well as those with other religious communities.

“Freedom of expression is essential to creating an environment in which a constructive discussion about religious matters can be held,” the High Commissioner noted. “Free and critical evaluation in open debate is the soundest way to probe whether religious interpretations adhere to, or instead distort, the original values that underpin religious belief.”

The experts also underlined the importance of avoiding a “culture of silence and silencing” noting that those who publicly criticize discriminatory religious tenets should not be targeted, legally or socially, for stirring up religious hatred.

While a legal response is of key importance, legislation was considered as part of a wider toolbox to tackle the challenges of hate speech. It should be complemented by alternative initiatives, coming from various sectors of society, based on a plurality of policies, practices, and measures to foster social change and open dialogue.

An independent judicial infrastructure, the experts noted, is crucial for ensuring that individual cases are assessed in accordance with international human rights standards. Other stakeholders in society should serve as checks and balances for ensuring the independent functioning of the judiciary and its members, they added.

The experts called for, among other things, providing protection and remedies to concerned individuals; for a robust and high threshold to determine what constitutes incitement to hatred; for anti-blasphemy provisions to be repealed; for human rights education and training to conducted; for awareness-raising of the media; and for stimulating cross-cultural knowledge-building and social mobilization.

22 July 2011