Date: Aug 29, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Speaking out about hate speech
Rubina Abu Zeinab-Chahine
Over the last 75 years, since the establishment of the U.N. in 1945 and the end of World War II, hate speech has been the cause of many crises, killings, genocides and violence. More recently, it has been linked with the shootings that happened around the world in the religious sites of the Philippines, Burkina Faso, Sri Lanka, New Zealand as well as other violent acts in the U.S.

Hate speech is a phenomenon that is spreading like forest fires. It is a challenge against which no country can claim immunity, especially with the media that connects the world. Many governments are trying to prevent crimes caused by orchestrated hate speech. However, to address it effectively, a coordinated reaction paralleled with a targeted effort is required, in addition to synchronized information collection and research that are inclusive of root causes of hate, its drivers, as well as hate speech situations. In this process, every state is accountable and has to perform a part.

Because we tend to forget old lessons, developing guidance to countering hate speech prevails like never before. A compassionate approach is always more effective than an angry, hostile, dehumanizing one. A brand new U.N. Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech was released last March that tackles the life cycle of hate speech from its root causes to its impact on society.

The strategy is rooted in the U.N.’s oldest commitments. Moreover, its effect cuts across various fields, including protection of human rights, prevention of violent extremism, countering of terrorism, control of gender-based violence, enhancement of civil protection, security of refugees and the fight against other types of violence.

Many people are targets of hate speech and some are an easier target due to present vulnerabilities. However, most tend to react directly to it. It presents serious threats to a democratic society’s cohesion, human rights protection and the rule of law; if left unaddressed, it may result in wider-scale violent acts and conflict. Hate speech, in this sense, is an extreme type of intolerance that adds to hate crime and other forms of violence.

There is no globally decided definition of “hate speech” and it is contentious to categorize what is “hateful.” The term “hate speech” is recognized in the context of the U.N. Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech as any kind of interaction in speech, writing or conduct that attacks or utilizes pejorative or discriminatory language with regard to an individual or group on the grounds of who they are - in other words based on their faith, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identification factor.

However, instead of banning hate speech as such, global legislation prevents incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence. Hate speech that does not meet the incitement threshold is not something that is banned by international law. It is essential to emphasize that hate speech can be dangerous even if it is not forbidden and that sanctions are essential when hate speech openly incites violence against individuals or groups.

Conscious of the dangerous connection between hate speech and violence, the U.N. strategy seeks to provide space and resources to tackle hate. Its goals are twofold: Enhance attempts to tackle root causes and hate speech drivers, and allow efficient reactions to reduce societies’ structural vulnerabilities to hate speech.

The rise of extremism starts with hate speech. Words should be used as a tool for increasing social cohesion instead of condemning violence acts. This does not mean promoting less speech, on the contrary: more speech. More positive, counter and alternative speech is key.

In many cases, an efficient strategy in addressing hate speech, especially cyber hate, is self-regulation by governmental and private organizations, media and internet industries, such as adopting codes of behavior followed by noncompliance sanctions. Today, several digital cooperation platforms among social media have been established. The aim is to prevent hate speech from escalating into violent actions and to promote values of tolerance without suppressing freedom of speech. It is necessary to maintain a balance between combating hate speech on one hand and safeguarding freedom of speech on the other.

Some of the key commitments presented in the strategy are: monitoring and analyzing hate speech by collecting information and evaluating hate speech trends; addressing root causes, drivers and actors of hate speech to mitigate its effects; and demonstrating solidarity with hate speech victims and enforcing policies centered on human rights.

Convening key actors inclusive of the government, the private sector and civil society makes solutions more attainable, in addition to involving new and traditional media as actors to tackle stories of hate speech and encourage values of tolerance, nondiscrimination, pluralism and liberty of expression, while also fostering peaceful, inclusive and just societies that encourage dialogue and mutual comprehension between cultures, faiths and religions.

Investing in education - formal or informal - is among the strategy’s highlights, as education is a tool for addressing and countering hate speech by encouraging global citizenship education values and abilities. Education and counterspeech are equally significant in combating the misunderstandings and falsehoods that form the foundation of hate speech.

This generation needs to understand the importance of living peacefully. Empowering youth to acknowledge, dismiss and stand up to hate manifestations is extremely important; teaching them tolerance and building their capacity to think critically, use their peaceful voices and find common ground is essential for designing and implementing an approach that leads to social and behavioral change.

Rubina Abu Zeinab-Chahine is executive director of the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 28, 2019, on page 3.