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Freedom of opinion and expression

Solutions sought on incitement to hatred in Africa

27 April 2011


International human rights law experts and practitioners gathered to acquire a clearer understanding of legislative patterns, judicial practices and policies to address incitement to hatred in Africa while also respecting freedom of expression as provided in Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In Nairobi, Kenya, the experts noted that incitement to violence and hatred had been present in most of the armed and political conflicts in Africa for the past 20 years. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, they said, constituted an extreme example.

Recalling her time as a Judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay stressed in a statement that genocide constitutes the ultimate form of discrimination and racial hatred.

“In international law, as well as in the jurisprudence of most national courts, it has been clearly stated that well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, such as the hate messages transmitted by Radio Mille Collines [in Rwanda], should be legitimately restricted in order to safeguard against these transgressions”, Pillay said. “History has proven time and time again that, when allowed to take root, discrimination, racial strife and intolerance shatter the very foundations of societies and damage them for generations.”

The experts also highlighted that a major challenge in some African countries was to contain the negative effects of assimilating ethnic and religious identities which has resulted in different groups in society being pitched against each other. 

Political parties and leaders, the experts added, have often used this interconnection between ethnicity and religion to increase tensions during electoral campaigns.

The experts noted however that diversity should be seen positively and be portrayed as an asset for any multicultural society, including African nations.

Experts also found that the majority of African national legal systems do not contain clearly formulated provisions related to freedom of expression and incitement to hatred. Furthermore, a number of African countries have incorporated vague and new categories of restrictions to freedom of expression.

Weak institutions, in particular the judiciary, across the continent continue to foster a culture of impunity towards intolerance, racism and hatred. One of the responses suggested by the experts was to take comprehensive action.

This would include the adoption of an adequate legal framework. Incitement to hatred could also be countered through education programmes and other initiatives within society. Capacity needs to be built to better guide the legislative drafting process and the work of the judiciary, as well as to better inform the adoption of relevant policies. The media should also be encouraged to self-train on the issue of incitement to hatred and to self-regulate.

Such action would require strengthened institutions combined with independent monitoring and data collection systems at the national, regional and international levels, as well as the participation of civil society, the experts added.

27 April 2011