Statements and speechesOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Side Event: Strengthening Global Efforts to Combat Antisemitism – a Human Rights Imperative
13 September 2023
Volker Türk , UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
54th session of the Human Rights Council
For me, this is a very personal topic. I grew up 20 years after World War II, shocked by the abominable crimes that were committed also in my own country, Austria. The anti-Jewish pogroms. The seizure of assets; the transportation of families – and concentration camps.
The Nazi Holocaust, its systematic murder of 6 million Jews – 1.5 million of them children – together with the mass murder of Roma, Slavs, people with disabilities, gay men, and members of resistance movements, cast an indelible shadow over human history, and especially, European history.
Antisemitism has been a scourge for generations. Its deep scars cannot be healed. But we can, and must, learn from them. The modern human rights movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Charter have been nourished by this imperative to learn how to overcome the hatred and ignorance that drive discrimination and violence.
We learn, first of all , that every genocide begins with hate speech, and with attitudes that dehumanize others.
We learn that to counter effectively this hatred, we need to act early, and target its deep roots. The reduction of people to a single group identity marker, on which all kinds of grievances and disappointments are projected. The drive to dominate and control . And at base, the assumption that we are not equal – that humans can be categorised into higher and lower orders of beings; that some people are inherently less deserving of respect. It is an attempt to justify supremacy.
And it is a danger zone.
I talked on Monday about the politics of distraction, division and deception. It is an old and vicious trick: inviting hatred; ; and continuously prodding that hatred; cultivating it, to harvest support – until it bursts into violence and explodes out of control.
Antisemitism is a very old and pernicious form of this, and shockingly, it is once again on the march. But it is not alone. I am also very deeply concerned about the continuing rise of Islamophobia; of hatred that is directed at migrants, refugees and minorities, including Roma; about deep-seated racism against people of African descent and Indigenous Peoples; and many other forms of discrimination and xenophobia.
New technologies and online media mean that racist caricatures and conspiracy theories can circulate now at a much greater speed, and without regard to distance – making them a grave threat to our social fabric.
We must do more to put a stop to the vilification of people, and the discrimination, the verbal abuse and physical attacks that it drives. We need to push back far more effectively against hatred and lies. We need to ensure that public discourse reflects the fundamental truth of the equality and equal rights to dignity of all human beings. We need to do this for the good of us all.
The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech sets out thirteen key commitments to address the root causes, drivers and actors of hate speech. It is the distillation of the approaches that we, at the UN, have learned can work.
Early warning signals, such as hate speech, must also lead to early action.
Governments have agreed that they have a responsibility to defend all individuals against hatred. They need to act on it.
They need to ensure that laws prohibit incitement to violence, discrimination or hostility – whether on the grounds of race, belief, nationality, sex, gender or any other characteristic.
Hate crimes are particularly abhorrent, and they must be treated as such. The victims of such crimes must know that societies will respond with the power of leadership and the full force of law – publicly calling out perpetrators and holding them accountable.
To push deeper, and try to reverse the currents that normalize hatred in society, also requires more proactive approaches.
Educational systems need to be reshaped -- to ensure that they address all forms of hate speech, and to prepare students to detect and critically deflect conspiracy theories.
Campaigns are also needed to raise broader public awareness of the atrocious impact of Antisemitism and all of forms of bias and prejudice – including the stinging pain of hate speech, and even casually denigrating remarks.
We need to actively, publicly celebrate the value of human diversity. And there must be wide circulation of information about where victims can seek effective support, justice and reparation.
We need to make sure that these efforts are strongly promoted online. Many social media platforms have played a terrible role in the metastising of hatred from limited backwaters into multi-current, mainstream trends. They must now do far more to stop the circulation of hate speech and disinformation. Those that do not take such action need to be held to account. There is no excuse for purveying the poison of hatred.
I strongly object to the current trolling campaign on one online platform against the Anti-Defamation League, after it called for action to limit the volume of hate speech.
Companies should increase transparency about their hate speech policies, and they must, much more effectively put these policies into practice. They must ensure that people can report hate speech easily, and that those reports will swiftly lead to appropriate action. All digital platforms need to vastly improve their efforts to combat hate speech in languages other than English, and pivot even greater attention to areas where early warning shows that there is a rise in hate.
Political and religious leaders have a particularly crucial responsibility to speak out clearly, firmly and immediately against intolerance, disrespect and hate speech.
I will be speaking later during this session of the Human Rights Council on the need to counter incitement to religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.
In reality, we are one – all human beings: the family of humanity. The greatest threats we face are faced by us all. Climate change; suffocating pollution; the plunder and impoverishment of our planet's diversity and resources; pandemics; poverty ; violence; injustice of all kinds.
Every single person who is reviled; rejected; mistreated; or prevented by a web of individual and systemic discrimination from achieving their goals represents a loss to all of us – and a terrible repudiation of this fundamental truth, which was set out so clearly and so simply 75 years ago: we are all equal, in dignity and in rights.