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Freedom of opinion and expression

Between Free Speech and Hate Speech: The Rabat Plan of Action, a practical tool to combat incitement to hatred

21 February 2013


Following several workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial and religious hatred organized by the United Nations in various regions of the world, a plan of action to prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, as outlined in article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was presented by internationally recognized experts at an event held in Geneva on 21 February.

"The remarkable collection of experts who have worked together on this issue over the past two years have fulfilled our hopes by reaching a consensus on how to effectively address the issue of incitement, and have devised a clear pathway to help us identify where to draw the demarcation line between freedom of expression and incitement” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in her opening statement.  

“In recent years, incidents involving hate speech, negative stereotyping in the media, and even advocacy of religious or national hatred by public officials and political parties have resulted in killings of innocent people, attacks on places of worship and calls for reprisals.  This spiral of violence has made it incumbent on us to renew the search for the correct balance between freedom of expression — which is among the most precious and fundamental of our rights as human beings — and the equally vital need to protect individuals and communities from discrimination and violence”, she added.

The Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (PDF) recommends the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination national legislations with preventive and punitive action to effectively combat incitement to hatred, as well as the empowerment of minorities and vulnerable groups. 

Evoking the complex equation between free speech and protection from incitement, Pillay acknowledged that views on this issue diverge greatly, with some calling for much tougher restrictions on permissible expression while others have maintained that freedom of expression should be near-absolute, pointing out that laws limiting speech are very often misused by authorities to muzzle critics and silence dissent.

The High Representative of the Alliance of Civilizations, Jorge Sampaio, welcomed the Rabat Plan of Action, which presents a set of practical recommendations to States, the UN system, political and religious leaders, the civil society and the media, and underlined the key role to be played by education to change mindsets.

“National and local authorities can exacerbate the severity of the speech, but they have also the potential to counter hate speech through positive speech and messages of tolerance and restraint” declared the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, when evoking the role of the State, religious and local authorities, education institutions and the media. Regarding the role of legislation, Dieng recognized that it was important but limited, and advised for a “multilayered approach for prevention”.

Among the key factors put forward in the Rabat Plan of Action to prevent incitement to hatred are the collective responsibility of public officials, religious and community leaders, the media and individuals, and the need to nurture social consciousness, tolerance, mutual respect, and intercultural dialogue. 

The Plan of Action also contains a six-part threshold test for forms of speech that are prohibited under criminal law.  The test takes into consideration: the context of incitement to hatred, the speaker, intent, content, extent of the speech, and likelihood of causing harm.  Furthermore, education on pluralism can also contribute to prevent incitement to hatred, intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization and discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religion or belief, according to experts.

“It is the first time when a joint action to establish a synergy among the work of several human rights mechanisms, treaty bodies and special procedures, —including on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion, and racism—independent experts, and non-governmental organizations,  results in the adoption of a comprehensive plan of action on a cross-cutting important aspect of human rights law: the delimitation of boundaries between free speech and hate speech”, says Ibrahim Salama, Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division at OHCHR.

The Plan of Action presented today was adopted at a meeting convened by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) in Rabat, Morocco, in October 2012.  The Rabat meeting aimed at wrapping-up discussions and recommendations made since 2011 at four regional workshops to assess at national and regional levels legislative patterns, judicial practices and policies on incitement to national, racial or religious hatred. 

The consultative process that led to the adoption of the Rabat Plan of Action involved three UN Special Rapporteurs (Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Heiner Bielefeldt, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Adama Dieng; Mutuma Ruteere, UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance), Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of Article XIX, as well as 45 experts from different cultural backgrounds and legal traditions. Regional workshops were held in Europe (Vienna, 9 - 10 February 2011), Africa (Nairobi, 6- 7 April 2011), Asia and the Pacific (Bangkok, 6 - 7 July 2011), and the Americas (Santiago, 12 - 13 October 2011). 

Building on the Rabat Plan of Action, the three UN Special Rapporteurs involved in the regional consultations will co-host in Geneva, on 22 February, a seminar to identify policy options for stopping and preventing incitement to atrocity crimes in situations where violence is imminent.

21 February 2013