15 March 2021
The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, who echoed the words of the Secretary-General that the world faces a veritable tsunami of hatred and xenophobia. He said a treaty was needed to regulate hate speech in social media, and this must in particular focus on the most prevalent and harmful forms of hate – and that was hate against minorities.
Presenting his thematic report on hate speech, social media and minorities, Mr. de Varennes said hate speech in social media was spreading and increasing. “And we at the United Nations and in many countries may be failing in not naming and tackling this evil”. Where disaggregated data was available on hate speech in social media or on hate crimes, approximately 70 per cent or more of those targeted tended to belong to minorities. The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with hate speech against a minority.
The Special Rapporteur also presented a report on his mission to Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan spoke as a country concerned.
In the interactive dialogue, speakers agreed with the Special Rapporteur that effective and appropriate safeguards should be put in place to ensure that the fast removal or disabling of access to illegal content online was proportionately in full respect for human rights, as they emphasised that freedom of expression should not be unduly limited. Other speakers warned that freedom of expression must not be used as a pretext for hate speech. Striking this balance was brought up by numerous speakers who underlined the difficulty of this challenge.
Speaking were European Union, Norway on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, United Nations Children's Fund, Sovereign Order of Malta, Russian Federation, Iraq, Greece, Ecuador, Armenia, Slovenia, Indonesia, Switzerland, Venezuela, Iran, Pakistan, India, United States, Nepal, Romania, Albania, Belarus, Austria, China, Paraguay, Azerbaijan, Viet Nam, Cuba, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, Tunisia, Georgia and Libya.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor: World Evangelical Alliance, Minority Rights Group, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, World Jewish Congress, Jubilee Campaign, Article 19 - International Centre Against Censorship, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Federatie van Nederlandse Verenigingen tot Integratie Van Homoseksualiteit - COC Nederland, Friends World Committee for Consultation, and China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture.
At the beginning of the meeting, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Lebanon, Armenia, Israel, Russia, China, Venezuela, South Sudan, Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, Senegal, Chad, Cameroon, Thailand, Algeria, Iraq, Cambodia, Pakistan, Japan and Azerbaijan spoke in right of reply with reference to the general debate on the agenda item on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.
At the end of the meeting, Israel, Latvia, Armenia and Azerbaijan spoke in right of reply with reference to the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.
The Human Rights Council will next meet at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 March, to start its consideration of the Universal Periodic Review outcomes of Belarus, Libya, Malawi, Panama, Mongolia, Maldives, Andorra and Honduras. The consideration of the outcomes of Liberia, Bulgaria, Marshall Islands, United States, Croatia and Jamaica will be considered on Wednesday, 16 March.
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues
The Council has before it the reports of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues A/HRC/46/57 on the widespread targeting of minorities through hate speech in social media and A/HRC/46/57/Add.1 on his visit to Kyrgyzstan
Presentation of Reports
FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said hate speech in social media was spreading and increasing. As the Secretary-General had said, the world faced a veritable tsunami of hatred and xenophobia. The thematic report focused on hate speech, social media and minorities. “And we at the United Nations and in many countries may be failing in not naming and tackling this evil”, he said. Where disaggregated data was available on hate speech in social media or on hate crimes, approximately 70 per cent or more of those targeted tended to belong to minorities. The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with hate speech against a minority. Dehumanising language, even reducing minorities to pests, normalised violence against them and made their persecution and eventual elimination acceptable. The three levels of a State’s international legal obligations in relation to hate speech were to criminalise the severest forms of hate speech, to prohibit other less ‘severe’ forms, and to take other measures to counter other forms that even though not as severe, still needed to be tackled in light of the possible harm that prejudice, racism and intolerance could cause to society at large. How to distinguish these three levels of hate speech was already partly developed in initiatives such as the Rabat Plan of Action. A treaty was needed to regulate hate speech in social media, and this must in particular focus on the most prevalent and harmful forms of hate – and that was hate against minorities. Social media owners were not evil, but they must lift up their game and tackle the evil of the mind which their business models and algorithms were unleashing on millions of people every hour of the day.
Turning to his visit to Kyrgyzstan, Mr. de Varennes said there had been real progress in recent years, especially in the ratification of numerous United Nations human rights treaties and the virtual elimination of statelessness. However, he expressed concerns about the sustainability of these advances. His recommendations identified the need for a more comprehensive anti-discrimination law, while human rights institutions such as the Ombudsman should be better supported, their independence assured, and their powers strengthened. He pointed out in particular that the rights of minorities like the Uzbeks were not respected in the area of the use of their language in education and in access to public services in their language due to their demographic weight. There were also still obstacles to registering and holding certain activities of small religious minorities which required additional efforts by the Government of Kyrgyzstan. Sign language should be officially recognized, and measures were needed to ensure that it was taught and used in basic public services.
Statement by Country Concerned
Kyrgyzstan, speaking as a country concerned, expressed appreciation for the fact that the report recognized Kyrgyzstan’s readiness to have an open dialogue and cooperation with the Special Procedure mandate holders. In December 2020, Kyrgyzstan had issued a standing invitation to all thematic Special Procedures and the country was ready to continue its active cooperation in this direction. Kyrgyzstan had been addressing the issues mentioned in the report. Following the recommendations by the Special Rapporteur, the State Commission on Religious Affairs of Kyrgyzstan was considering the revision of the draft law on freedom of religion. The State Commission had now withdrawn the draft law on religious affairs for further elaboration. The draft law on ‘citizenship stripping’ had been returned to its initiator for further elaboration. The aim of the concept of ‘Kyrgyz Zharany’ (Kyrgyz Citizen) for 2021-2026 was to increase the effectiveness of the State policy in the ethnic sphere and further strengthen the unity of the people of Kyrgyzstan. The concept had undergone wide public discussions, including among civil society organizations and international organizations. It should be noted that the ‘Kyrgyz Zharany’ concept was a civic concept, and not an ethnic one.
Speakers agreed with the Special Rapporteur that effective and appropriate safeguards should be put in place to ensure that the fast removal or disabling of access to illegal content online was proportionately in full respect for human rights, as they emphasised that freedom of expression should not be unduly limited. Other speakers warned that freedom of expression must not be used as a pretext for hate speech. Striking this balance was brought up by numerous speakers who underlined the difficulty of this challenge. Welcoming the Forum on Minority Issues, despite the pandemic-related technical challenges, speakers noted that it may serve as a unique platform for a fruitful exchange of ideas and best practices among all interested stakeholders. COVID-19 had only intensified the effects of online hate speech on minorities, particularly with regards to Islamophobia. There could be no denying the importance of social networks during the pandemic - but the outbreak of an epidemic of hate was concerning, as speakers called on States to counter it by updating their legal frameworks. Moreover, social media companies had to be held accountable for their role in inciting violence and hate speech against minorities on their platforms. Prevention was essential - education and other strategies promoting cultural diversity, tolerance and inclusion must also be considered.
FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, noted that polices that acknowledged and addressed the main targets and victims of hate speech, such as those that specifically addressed anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-gypsyism, were the most effective. When speaking about social media platforms, they were dealing with private businesses, and one strategy was to engage positively with them; some of these initiatives were already happening. The Special Rapporteur said he was in contact with Facebook in relation to how their policies affected minorities. He recalled the situation of the Rohingya - that situation did not occur overnight but was instead fed by hate messages and speech that was mainly propagated by Facebook, characterising them as individuals who did not belong and who were a threat. This had led to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas having to flee: this would happen again if the world did not tackle this issue.
Speakers noted that policies and statements that harmed linguistic minorities were often overlooked by the mandate holder. States should establish proportionate thresholds to assess statements that may amount to incitement. Speakers denounced the politicisation of the pandemic, leading to a surge in hate crimes against Asians, while social media companies fuelled the nefarious hype, while profiting from it. Given that there was no universally accepted definition of hate speech, a sound regulatory framework was critical. Such a legal framework should enable administrative and judicial authorities to reconcile freedom of expression with the respect for human dignity. Speakers expressed grave concern about politicians and public officials in high-ranking positions who often made statements that promoted discrimination or undermined equality. Tragically, such actions by persons in positions of power led to an underreporting of violations. One speaker drew attention to the violations faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans persons in Kyrgyzstan, and the particular danger posed by conversion therapies.
FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said some social media companies had begun to better respond to criticism and improve the way in which they dealt with hate speech. However, efforts to combat the tsunami of hate speech should focus on minorities, as they were the main target of hateful discourse online. Further, the approach adopted by social media companies failed to integrate a comprehensive human rights framework. This was a global issue that required a global approach. A legally binding document was needed that involved States, social media companies and civil society. The initiative must come from here, the United Nations.