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UN Human Rights Chief urges U.K. to tackle tabloid hate speech, after migrants called “cockroaches”

GENEVA (24 April 2015) – After decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion, and in the wake of a recent article in the Sun newspaper calling migrants “cockroaches,” the UN Human Rights Chief on Friday urged the U.K. authorities, media and regulatory bodies to take steps to curb incitement to hatred by British tabloid newspapers, in line with the country’s obligations under national and international law.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also called on all European countries to take a firmer line on racism and xenophobia which he said “under the guise of freedom of expression, are being allowed to feed a vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants, as well as of marginalized European minorities such as the Roma.”

“This is not only sapping compassion for the thousands of people fleeing conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation who are drowning in the Mediterranean. The nasty underbelly of racism that is characterizing the migration debate in an increasing number of EU countries, has skewed the EU response to the crisis, which as we see in the results of the EU Council deliberations yesterday focuses on deterrence and on preventing movement at all costs, risks making the crisis even worse, and could sadly result in further massive loss of life.”

An article by a Sun columnist on 17 April began with the words “Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care.” Elsewhere in the article she described migrants as “a plague of feral humans,” compared them to “a novovirus” and said some British towns were “festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.”

The Sun columnist also advocated using gunboats to stop migrants, threatening them with violence, and said “drilling a few holes in the bottom of anything suspiciously resembling a boat would be a good idea too.”

In language very similar to that employed by Rwanda’s Kangura newspaper and Radio Mille Collines during the run up to the 1994 genocide, the columnist said “make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches.” Leading figures in both Rwandan media organizations were later convicted by an international tribunal of public incitement to commit genocide.

On Monday, a British NGO, the Society of Black Lawyers, reported the Sun to the U.K.’s Metropolitan Police and requested the matter be investigated under the 1986 Public Order Act to see whether the article amounts to incitement to racial hatred.

Zeid urged the UK authorities to take the complaint seriously, and to closely examine the broader issue of incitement to hatred by the tabloid press and other sectors of society. “This vicious verbal assault on migrants and asylum seekers in the UK tabloid press has continued unchallenged under the law for far too long. I am an unswerving advocate of freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but it is not absolute. Article 20 of the same Covenant says ‘Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.’”

The High Commissioner noted that Article 20 of the ICCPR, as well as elements relating to hate speech in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination* (both of which have been ratified by the U.K., as well as by all other EU countries), were rooted in the desire to outlaw the type of anti-Semitic and other racially based hate speech used by the Nazi media during the 1930s. “The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches. This type of language is clearly inflammatory and unacceptable, especially in a national newspaper. The Sun’s editors took an editorial decision to publish this article, and – if it is found in breach of the law – should be held responsible along with the author.”

Zeid noted that the Sun article was simply one of the more extreme examples of thousands of anti-foreigner articles that have appeared in UK tabloids over the past two decades. “To give just one glimpse of the scale of the problem, back in 2003 the Daily Express ran 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period. Asylum seekers and migrants have, day after day, for years on end, been linked to rape, murder, diseases such as HIV and TB, theft, and almost every conceivable crime and misdemeanour imaginable in front-page articles and two-page spreads, in cartoons, editorials, even on the sports pages of almost all the UK’s national tabloid newspapers,” he said. “Many of these stories have been grossly distorted and some have been outright fabrications. Elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other countries, there has been a similar process of demonization taking place, but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.”

The High Commissioner noted that “while migration and refugee issues are completely valid topics for public debate, it is imperative that migration policy decisions that affect people’s lives and fundamental human rights should be made on the basis of fact -- not fiction, exaggeration or blatant xenophobia. History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities, and it is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used in a variety of countries, simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.”

ENDS

* Article 4 of the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) says that 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 acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin...". The international body overseeing the implementation of ICERD has made it clear that the provisions of article 4 apply to non-citizens.

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR makes it clear that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and it may therefore be subject to certain restrictions.

In addition, the 2012 Rabat Plan of Action, the outcome of extensive international discussions on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence provides further useful guidance on these issues.

For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org), Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org).

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