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There is no universal definition of hate speech under international human rights law

United Nations statement on the occasion of the International Day for Countering Hate Speech, 18 June

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Hate speech: Turning the tide

The devastating effect of hatred is sadly nothing new. However, its scale and impact are amplified today by new technologies of communication, so much so that hate speech, has become one of the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale. If left unchecked, hate speech can even harm peace and development, as it lays the ground for conflicts and tensions, wide scale human rights violations.
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 UN areas of focus, from protecting human rights and preventing atrocities to sustaining peace, achieving gender equality and supporting children and youth.
In response to the alarming trends of growing xenophobia, racism and intolerance, violent misogyny, antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred around the world, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech on 18 June 2019.
The Plan of Action 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, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.
However, to date there is no universal definition of hate speech under international human rights law. The concept is still under discussion, especially in relation to freedom of opinion and expression, non-discrimination and equality.
Online hate speech might seem like an unstoppable tide, but strategies are being employed by governments, civil society, and individuals, to fight back.

The preventive role of education

As history has shown, genocide and mass atrocities begin with words of hate. This underscores our collective responsibility to address hate speech today to prevent potential harm tomorrow. But countering hate speech effectively requires a holistic approach that goes beyond legislation. It must also focus on prevention.
The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech emphasizes the transformative power of education as a tool to address this phenomenon’s root causes and drivers. It seeks to promote peaceful, inclusive and just societies for all, in line with the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.
Tackling the issue of hate speech from an educational perspective involves strengthening educational policies and programmes with specific measures to address and counter hate speech. It can draw on Global Citizenship Education and media and information literacy initiatives. It can include approaches targeting multiple stakeholders, disciplines and all members of society. And it can harness activities to help young people engage with media and information, develop critical thinking and life-long learning, and become active citizens who support peace and human rights.
As online environments have become echo chambers for hateful rhetoric, strengthening digital literacy as part of global citizenship education has become ever more important than ever. Audiences need to know how to critically analyse and counteract hate speech – both offline or online. In the digital world, media and information literacy is a key tool to build our resilience against hate speech. It empowers citizens with critical thinking skills to assess information and develop a sense of responsibility for one’s online behaviour.
Building digital citizenship requires fostering knowledge and an understanding of human rights and freedom of expression. This can be done through human rights education and social and emotional learning, - powerful tools to address and counter harmful social norms and practices, including in crisis situations.

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