Fighting incitement to crimes against humanity

A multi-layered approach to countering hate speech that could incite genocide and other crimes against humanity is needed, given the limits of legislation and the imperative to preserve freedom of expression, a United Nations official dealing with the issue told at a panel recently.

Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide © UN Photo/Rick Bajornas“It is important to balance the right of freedom of expression with the need to prevent or stop the most extreme cases of hate speech – those that have the potential to incite mass violence,” Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, told a panel on the topic.

In the panel, participants agreed that the topic of genocide and incitement to such atrocity crimes remained critical not only because of the importance of the issue in the founding of the UN after the Holocaust, but also because of the role of speech in the more recent atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and in the widespread violence triggered by the anti-Islam movie in 2012.

Dieng said he was about to leave for Kenya where, in the run-up to March elections, there have been numerous initiatives taken to try to prevent the kind of hate speech that contributed to the ethnic violence that followed the 2008 polls.

For an effective multi-layered approach, Dieng said, legislation must be complemented with fighting the root causes of hate speech – racism and discrimination – through dialogue and other measures, as well as countering it with “positive speech,” from government as well as civil society, while improving national and international early warning of build-up of hate, for instance through the monitoring of new media.

Dieng, who was formerly the Registrar for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, said he personally witnessed the role that hate speech can play in instigating atrocities and conversely the role that prevention could play in stopping such crimes.

However, he cautioned, outlawing speech should be exceptional, since “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) – the most extreme form of hate speech – usually happens only in extraordinary circumstances.”

The factors that make speech “dangerous,” as well as the dangerousness of hate speech had been identified in several initiatives, he said. These include the severity, content, extent, imminence, likelihood, and context of the speech.

“However, we need more clarity on what constitutes incitement to atrocity crimes, especially because by better knowing what constitutes incitement, we can also better limit or control it. This, in turn, is essential to prevent mass violence,” he said.

Participants in the discussion held at UN Headquarters in New York on 1 February included the Ambassador of Norway, Geir O. Pedersen, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank LaRue, a fellow on genocide prevention at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Susan Benesch, and experts on media ethics and related issues.

Dieng highlighted the importance of a seminar organized by his office at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 22 February, which will aim to identify policy options for stopping and preventing incitement to atrocity crimes in situations where violence is imminent.

With the participation of the UN special rapporteurs on the freedom of opinion and expression; on the freedom of religion or belief; and on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, the seminar is part of ongoing work to build on the 2012 Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

The Rabat Plan of Action is the culmination of a series of expert workshops, in various regions of the world, on countering “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2011-2012. The Rabat Plan of Action was adopted by experts at a meeting in Morocco in October 2012.

11 February 2013

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