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GENEVA, March 15, 2021 – Social media have become platforms for the spread of hate, prejudice and incitement to violence and atrocities against minorities, a UN expert told the Human Rights Council today, calling for an international treaty to address the growing scourge of hate speech against minorities. 

“Today’s digital context means minorities are too often, with relative impunity, scapegoated, ‘otherised’, presented as disloyal, or as threats,” said Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues. 

“It is a warning that I never thought I would have to make, but the Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers, it started with hate speech against a minority. Dehumanizing language, even reducing minorities to pests, normalizes violence against them and makes their persecution and eventual elimination acceptable.

“It’s time for a human rights centred regulatory framework that provides clarity on the obligations of States, social media businesses and other concerned parties to regulate hate speech, focusing on the most prevalent and harmful forms of hate – and that is hate against minorities,” said de Varennes.

In some countries more than three-quarters of the cases involving hate speech target minorities, yet efforts to combat on-line hate speech seldom focus on or even acknowledge minorities. The consequences of the lack of effective legal and other responses by public authorities and social media platforms can be tragic to the point of being lethal, leading to massive atrocities and violations of human rights and the creation of 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. The starting point for addressing the scourge of hate speech against minorities in social media is the full respect of freedom of expression with only those strictly necessary restrictions permissible in international law to criminalise 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.” de Varennes said.

“States must act quickly and effectively to address and counter on-line hate speech against minorities, including by swiftly and 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. 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,” he added. “This is still usually not the case”.

The Special Rapporteur also called for the drafting of practical guidelines on combating hate speech targeting minorities as a matter of urgency, setting out the responsibilities of states and social media platforms, and the liabilities of the latter, and a future legally binding instrument.

Mr. Fernand de Varennes was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council, to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things. He is Extraordinary Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Cheng Yu Tung Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong; and Visiting Professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland-Galway. He is one of the world’s leading experts on minority rights in international law, with more than 200 publications in some 30 languages.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

www.ohchr.org