Interview with Special Advisor on Genocide Adama Dieng on Hate Speech


In June 2019, the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, launched the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech. Respect for human rights, without any form of discrimination is one of the core fundamentals of this strategy. In a recent interview with the UN Human Rights Office,  UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng discussed how to combat the rising issue of hate speech.

(A young girl holds up a sign saying “We are all human.” Credit: EPA/Olivier Hoslet.)

You are leading the UN’s new strategy to counter hate speech. What are some concrete measures that we will take to “tackle the whole life cycle of hate speech, from its roots causes to its impact on societies”? 

The UN Strategy and Plan of Action to address hate speech set out 13 commitments. These commitments will have to be implemented globally, but also at the national level. They include a wide range of actions, including:

  • increasing understanding and monitoring of hate speech and its impact on societies
  • identifying and devising programs to address the drivers and root causes of hate speech
  • supporting alternative and positive narratives to counter hate speech.

This is a huge program, which will require the involvement of Member States, civil society, the media, tech companies and other relevant stakeholders. It is also the responsibility of each and every individual.

There’s a radical contestation of what constitutes hate speech today.  But is hate speech really too subjective to be defined? Can you offer a definition of hate speech? Or is it impossible without endangering freedom of expression that is under global attack?

Let me first say that there is no international legal definition of hate speech. The characterization of what is hateful is controversial and disputed. However, the United Nations, has developed a working definition, not an international legal definition. At the UN, we understand the term “hate speech” 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. This is often rooted in, and generates intolerance and hatred and, in certain contexts, can be demeaning and divisive.

At the UN, we also believe that freedom of opinion and expression is sacred; and that hate speech should never ever be confused with suppression of this freedom. Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of opinion and expression. It means keeping hate speech from into something more dangerous, particularly, incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited in the international law, through the commitments set out in the Strategy and Plan of Action.

What are some of the most effective and powerful forms of social mobilization that you have seen against hate speech? What can we learn from them?

There are many ways in which societies can stand up against hate speech and its impact. The most important way is by ensuring that populations are resilient against hate speech and the divisions it seeks to achieve. States are also responsible for ensuring that policies and programs of non-discrimination, inclusion and human rights are adequately applied. Other actors such as the media, religious actors, and every individual have a role and a responsibility to contribute to peaceful and inclusive societies. We need to mobilize the youth and invest in education. We need to assert that diversity is richness, not a threat. In the 1930s, when hate speech was rising in Europe, no action was taken to tackle it. The result was the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed. We saw it also in Rwanda, where, within 100 days, nearly one million people were killed because of their ethnicity, because they were Tutsis. We saw it again in Myanmar, where over 700,000 Rohingya had to flee their country and find refuge in Bangladesh because the violence they faced. The instances of extreme violence were also preceded by hate speech.  

What can every person do to combat hate speech? How can we better support everyone who is fighting it? 

We all have a role to play in countering hate speech. Today, many of us are connected through the internet. And even if we are not the targets of that hate speech, we need to get involved in addressing it, simply because we need to stand in solidarity with those who are being targeted. We need to make sure that whoever is being subject to hate speech, feel supported. We need to come together to empower the voices of those victims.

We also need to include in the curricula in various schools around the world the emphasis on human rights and on prevention. One of the commitments of the Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech is for the the United Nations will convene an international conference on Education for Prevention with focus on addressing and countering hate speech which would involve Ministers of Education.

Watch Adama Dieng explain more about why hate speech is not protected in the video below.

27 September 2019



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