The proliferation of hate speech represents an unprecedented challenge for our societies. Learn how you can tackle hate speech and the UN's resources.
Hate speech is rising around the world
Hate speech incites violence and undermines social cohesion and tolerance. The devastating effect of hatred is sadly nothing new. However, its scale and impact are nowadays amplified by new technologies of communication, to the point that hate speech - including online - has become one of the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale and threatening peace.
The United Nations has a long history of mobilizing the world against hatred of all kinds to defend human rights and advance the rule of law. The impact of hate speech cuts across numerous existing United Nations areas of focus, from human rights protection and prevention of atrocity crimes to sustaining peace and achieving gender equality and supporting children and youth.
Because fighting hate, discrimination, racism and inequality is at the core of United Nations principles and work, the Organization is working to confront hate speech at every turn. This principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, in the international human rights framework and in the global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
The UN Resident Coordinator in Indonesia Valerie Julliand highlights our collective commitment to countering hate speech.
UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech
In response to the alarming trends of growing xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech on 18 June 2019. This first UN system-wide initiative designed to tackle hate speech provides an essential framework for how the Organization can support and complement States' efforts. The strategy emphasizes the need to counter hate holistically and with full respect for freedom of opinion and expression, while working in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including civil society organizations, media outlets, tech companies and social media platforms.
Hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a job for everyone. - António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, 2021
In common language, “hate speech” loosely refer to offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics - such as race, religion or gender - and that may threaten social peace.
Under International Human Rights Law, there is no universal definition of hate speech as the concept is still widely disputed especially in regards to its relation to freedom of opinion and expression, non-discrimination and equality.
With the aim to provide an unified framework for the UN system to address the issue globally, the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as…“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.”
While the above is not a legal definition and is broader than the notion of “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” - prohibited under international human rights law - it highlights three important attributes:
Hate speech can be conveyed through any form of expression, including images, cartoons, memes, objects, gestures and symbols and it can be disseminated offline or online.
Hate speech is “discriminatory” - biased, bigoted, intolerant - or “pejorative” - in other words, prejudiced, contemptuous or demeaning - of an individual or group.
Hate speech makes reference to real, purported or imputed “identity factors” of an individual or a group in a broad sense: “religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender,” but also any other characteristics conveying identity, such as language, economic or social origin, disability, health status, or sexual orientation, among many others.
It’s important to note that hate speech can only be directed at individuals or groups of individuals; therefore, it does not include communication about entities such as States and their offices or symbols, public officials, nor religious leaders, or tenets of faith.
Hate speech is an issue prevalent in all societies, whether offline or online. It can sometimes be difficult to assess when a comment is meant as hate speech - especially when occurring in the virtual world - or it can simply feel overwhelming trying to deal with obvious hateful content.
However, there are many ways you can take a stand, even if you are not personally the victim of hate speech - and you can make a difference. The following tips may be helpful.
Restrain from making any hateful comments yourself and/or relaying such content. Whether online or offline, we can all act responsibly and contribute to stop the spread of hate and misinformation. Check out the United Nations #PledgetoPause campaign to find out why it’s important to take a moment to pause before you share content and how to do it responsibly online, whether you’re forwarding a message, retweeting a story or watching a video in your feed.
In the digital world, it’s common to come across misinformation and harmful content, but it’s generally also easy to verify whether the content you come across is reliable. Make sure you spot false and biased information, including hate speech propaganda, checking the content origin with the help of search engines, fact-checking tools and other reliable sources. You can also download images and run them through image search tools to find out when they appeared first.
Whenever possible, do not remain silent, even when others are targeted: speak up calmly but firmly against hate speech and call it out to make clear that you do not agree with the content of the statement. When relevant, you can refute misinformation with facts, providing reliable sources to back up your argument.
One way to tackle hate speech is to spread your own counter-speech to make sure hate is not the dominant narrative. Feel free to undermine hateful content with positive messages that spread tolerance, equality and truth in defense of those being targeted by hate.
Taking a public stand for and extending solidarity to people who are targets of hate speech can help fight hate speech and demonstrate that rejecting hate is the responsibility of each one of us.
Most digital platforms and online communities have rules to ensure users' discussions remain respectful and will let you easily report messages of hate to administrators or moderators. Make sure you check out social media platforms guidelines and tips that aim to protect users from harassment and hate speech. For most serious cases - that may constitute incitement to violence, harassment and/or threat prohibited by law - you can choose to notify organizations fighting hate speech and/or file a complaint with the police authorities (or the public prosecutor’s office). Some countries have implemented nation-wide online tools to make reporting hate speech easier.
You can help raise awareness on the issue of hate speech - online or offline - as simply as engaging with your family and friends in conversations about how hateful content can harm societies, advocating for responsible behaviour and sharing public campaigns and educational resources.
Consider joining a NGO or another civil society initiative that works towards addressing the issue of hate speech in your community.
Further UN initiatives to combat hate speech
Further initiatives across the United Nations system go beyond legal responses with the aim to prevent and mitigate the impact of hate speech.
The Rabat Plan of Action - Complementing International Human Rights Law provisions, the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence provides key guidance on the distinction between the freedom of expression and the incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence.
Adopted in October 2012, the Rabat Plan of Action is the outcome of a series of Expert meetings organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It stresses the collective responsibility of States officials, religious and community leaders, the media, civil society and all individuals on the need to nurture social cohesion, tolerance, dialogue to prevent incitement to hatred.
The Rabat Plan of Action suggests a high threshold for defining restrictions on freedom of expression, incitement to hatred, and for the application of article 20 of the ICCPR. It outlines a six-part threshold test taking into account (1) the social and political context, (2) status of the speaker, (3) intent to incite the audience against a target group, (4) content and form of the speech, (5) extent of its dissemination and (6) likelihood of harm, including imminence.
Initiated in January 2021 in 3 pilot countries, with the support of the European Union, this UNESCO project aims to strengthen the resilience of societies to potentially harmful content spread online - in particular hate speech inciting violence - while protecting freedom of expression and enhancing the promotion of peace through digital technologies, notably social media.
This global UN initiative launched in May 2020 aims to combat COVID-19 misinformation - often paired with fear-mongering and hateful content - by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information. “Verified” brings together United Nations agencies and teams around the world, with influencers, civil society, business and media organizations in order to distribute trusted, accurate content, while working with social media platforms to root out hate and harmful assertions about COVID-19.
Marking an important milestone in the fight against hate speech, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on “promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance in countering hate speech”. The resolution proclaims 18 June as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech and will first be marked on 18 June 2022.