Independent UN expert says ‘tsunami of hate’ targeting minorities must be tackled

15 March 2021

Social media has too often been used with “relative impunity” to spread hate, prejudice and violence against minorities, an independent UN human right expert said on Monday, calling for an international treaty to address the growing scourge.

“The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with hate speech against a minority”, warned Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

“Dehumanizing language, even reducing minorities to pests, normalizes violence against them and makes their persecution and eventual elimination acceptable”, he added.

A slippery slope

The UN rights envoy pointed out that in some countries, while more than three-quarters of hate speech cases target minorities, efforts to combat online occurrences seldom focus on, or even acknowledge, minorities.

This can be lethal – not only leading to massive atrocities and human rights violations but alco creating conditions for potential conflict.

“States, civil society and social media platforms have the duty to take further steps towards the full and effective implementation of the human rights obligations involved”, said the Special Rapporteur.

Criminalization key

He said the starting point to address the scourge was “to criminalize the severest forms of hate speech, to prohibit other less ‘severe’ forms, and to take administrative and other measures to counteract less severe forms of hate flowing from prejudice, racism and intolerance which may be harmful to society at large.”

He maintained that States must act quickly to counter online hate speech against minorities, including by effectively investigating and prosecuting those responsible, holding them accountable, and ensuring that victims have effective access to justice and remedy.

“With regard to social media platforms, minorities should specifically be identified as priorities”, said the UN rights envoy. “Social media’s content moderation systems and community standards and any oversight or appeal entity should clearly commit to protecting vulnerable and marginalised minorities and other groups and systematically integrate fully human rights standards into the content policies and decision mechanisms of their platforms”.

However, he flagged that “this is still usually not the case”.

A treaty needed

It is time for “a human rights-centred regulatory framework” that clearly outlines the obligations of States, social media businesses and others to “regulate hate speech, focusing on the most prevalent and harmful forms of hate – and that is hate against minorities”, Mr. de Varennes said.

He also called for this as a matter of urgency as well as for a future legally binding instrument.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and they are paid for their work


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