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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Türk calls for measures to address religious hatred

08 March 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


55th session of the Human Rights Council - Panel discussion on countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence



Mr President,

Distinguished panellists,


The Council has convened this panel of experts to explore the drivers, root causes and human rights impacts of the desecration of sacred books, places of worship and religious symbols.

It is a discussion that has special resonance today, International Women's Day, when we renew our resolve to uphold women's rights. Expressions of religious hatred against people wearing religious symbols often disproportionately target women and girls.

I want to stress my disgust for such expressions of scorn and hate. Wherever a child or adult is humiliated and made to feel unworthy of equal treatment because of the community of her or his birth; wherever groups of people are vilified and harassed; wherever there is discrimination and incitement to hostility and violence, a fundamental premise of the UN Charter – “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours” – is being denied.

Attacks on places of worship, and manifestations of contempt for books that are revered by believers – such as incidents of burning the Quran – are often fed by a deeper pool of misperceptions and discrimination.

Combatting discrimination and hatred is fundamental to the human rights movement. My Office, and I personally, stand in total opposition to all forms of discrimination, and to the false narratives that underly them. Yet xenophobia and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, gender, ethnicity and migrant status are rising to acutely disturbing levels today.

Since I last spoke before the Council on these issues, and in line with resolution 53/1, my Office has embarked on work to set out a series of measures that can be adopted by States and other actors to address religious hatred; and the deliberate – and often politically motivated – weaponisation of religion to target the other, in particular minorities.

In November, we convened diplomats, UN independent experts, religious leaders and civil society representatives for a brainstorming discussion on addressing religious hatred; the need for human rights-based policies to enable the full flourishing of religious and cultural diversity; and ways that faith-based actors can engage the shared, universal principles of human dignity, compassion and solidarity to promote safe, inclusive societies.

Additional hybrid discussions were held with a range of actors who could not travel to Geneva. They included academics and civil society groups engaged in concrete initiatives in Armenia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, France, Lebanon, Nigeria, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkiye, United Kingdom and the United States of America.

We also issued a call for inputs to all States regarding the drivers, root causes and human rights impacts of religious hatred. The contributions that we received have enriched my report A/HRC/55/74, which will be discussed on 13 March, on combating intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against people based on religion or belief.

Hate-driven attacks – ranging from hateful speech to symbolic acts of contempt and acts of physical violence – appear to be rising in all regions. Frequently, such hatred and violence are actively promoted by politicians who hope to instrumentalize the public’s fear at turmoil around the world by scapegoating a minority group – and it has been observed that these attacks often accompany electoral periods. This is acutely relevant in 2024, which will see more elections take place than any other year in history, and with conflicts rising, particularly in the Middle East.

Harmful stereotypes of minorities, religious or belief communities, migrants, and others are also nourished by conspiracy theories such as the paranoid “great replacement” notions that I discussed on Monday.

Hatred based on religion is pernicious. It instrumentalises faith – which is grounded in bonds of compassion, solidarity and hope – and it harms people at what they may view as the core of their being and identity.

It is important for States and other actors to take action to address the spread of speech that weaponizes our diversity of origins and beliefs – a diversity that is, in reality, of immense benefit to every society.

I'd like to offer the following points:

First, this action must begin with the law.

I am struck by the fact that most UN Member States are assessed to be lacking comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. In other words, in most of the world’s countries, people may lack readily accessible and effective legal tools to deliver justice when their rights to equality are violated.

From the perspective of addressing root causes, taking action to deliver the full protection of law to all people is absolutely fundamental. I strongly encourage all Member States to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, based on the guidelines that were recently issued by my Office.

In addition to punishing and deterring dangerous acts of violence and hostility, appropriate anti-discrimination legislation empowers people from minority communities to participate more fully in society, and can heighten the understanding between diverse groups.

In addition, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires States to prohibit advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. This is an international obligation to which all States parties must give effect through their domestic legislation.

Second, I encourage appropriate action within institutions of justice.

Justice systems should be seized more systematically of cases of expression of religious hatred – including instances of alleged desecration of sacred books and religious symbols – so that they can determine whether the threshold of advocacy of hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence has been crossed. Last October, for example, a district court in Sweden found a man guilty of incitement for distributing a video in which he burned a copy of the Qur’an, using background music that was played during the terrorist attack on a mosque in New Zealand.

States also have an obligation to combat discrimination – including on religious grounds – and I also urge such cases to be brought before courts. The Office continuously engages with national authorities, through our field presences, to offer guidance regarding the formulation, reform and implementation of legislation relating to all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of religion or belief.

Programmes of peer-to-peer learning for judges, lawyers and prosecutors have proven very helpful, and I encourage more work at this level. My Office also offers training on conflict prevention in multi-religious communities, and the application of domestic hate speech provisions, most recently in Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of Moldova.

All police forces must also be properly trained to record and take action on incidents of incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, including those based on religious intolerance.

Mr President,

At the same time, international human rights law does not protect religious doctrines or positions, as such. As the UN Human Rights Committee has emphasised, a display of lack of respect for a religion that does not constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence may not be prohibited.

The Rabat Plan of Action, developed by my Office, delivers detailed guidance regarding the distinction between speech or action that incites discrimination, hostility and violence, and speech or action that, while it may be critical or even contemptuous, does not actually incite discrimination, hostility and violence.

Third, to address this category of speech – and more broadly, to strengthen social cohesion and heighten respect – I strongly recommend effective societal initiatives.

To build societies in which expressions of hatred have become socially unacceptable requires inclusive faith literacy, and a more holistic view of human rights education.

The "Faith for Rights" framework that was set up by my Office in 2017 engages governments, religious authorities and a wide range of civil society actors in peerexchanges about concrete efforts on the ground.

In Cyprus, for example, several religious leaders who are part of the “Faith for Rights” commUNity of practices have advocated for people of all faiths to have unimpeded access to their places of worship; they have also condemned incitement to violence, discrimination or hostility in the name of religion. Our recent consultations with States and civil society have yielded many other examples that can guide efforts to promote more collaboration between people of many faiths and skill-sets, cutting across social classes and silos.

Human rights education can be overt, in schools and public media campaigns, but it can also be more subtle – diffused through inclusive sports teams, local skills training, women's civil society programmes, practical projects jointly led by religious and community leaders and, perhaps especially, an emphasis on the inclusive participation of young people, who will carry the lessons of these shared social connections into the future.

Social media platforms have a clear responsibility to combat online hate speech that may lead to real-world discrimination and violence. The Office strongly advocates responsible and principled regulation in this area, and we are working with a number of companies to step up efforts to meet their human rights responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Mr President,

It is vital to uphold people's fundamental rights to live free from all forms of discrimination, and from targeted attacks that incite hostility and violence against them.

It is equally essential to address the weaponisation of our diversity – including our diversity of religions and beliefs – to scapegoat minorities for political benefit.

We must strive to build societies that reject prejudice and contempt; societies in which all communities understand and respect each other.

I urge all States to implement the recommendations highlighted by the Office in multiple reports to this Council, in order to promote freedom of religion or belief; to act expeditiously on hate crimes; and to protect religious or belief minorities, where necessary, including their places of worship.

Thank you, Mr President.