Do we need to do more than just talk? Strategies and initiatives to combat hate speech and hate crimes in Europe

12 November 2020

The fight against hate speech and hate crimes can only succeed if state and civil society work together. A binding legal framework, dialogue and education must go hand in hand. This was the conclusion reached by the panelists of the event "Addressing Hate Speech in Europe" at Geneva Peace Week.

By Sylvia Servaes and Martin Mader of FriEnt (original version in German) 

With the Covid 19 pandemic, conspiracy theories have spread rapidly through social networks worldwide, but especially in Europe. Hate speech towards immigrants, Muslims, and Jews, but also women and members of the LGBTI+ community are on the rise. But despite existing governmental and civil society initiatives in Europe, the spread of hate speech and hate crimes seems unstoppable – neither offline nor online.

In light of these worrying developments, Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes (GAAMAC) supported the Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt) in the organization of the online session “Addressing Hate Speech in Europe” as part of Geneva Peace Week 2020.

The panellists discussed how to combat hate speech and hate crimes in Europe. Christie Edwards (Deputy Head of the Tolerance and Anti-Discrimination Unit of the OSCE’s Office for Democracy and Human Rights) and Elvir Djuliman (Head of the Nansen Dialogue Centre in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina) discussed promising initiatives and common challenges with moderator Mô Bleeker (GAAMAC Chairperson and Special Representative of the FDFA for Dealing with the Past and Preventing Atrocities).

Overcoming fears – building bridges

Civil society initiatives make a decisive contribution to the fight against hate speech and hate crimes. Christie Edwards and Elvir Djuliman emphasized the bridging function of such initiatives between the groups concerned and state bodies such as the police and the judiciary. These initiatives often raise awareness of experiences of discrimination and enable victims to have their voices heard. At the same time, locally rooted initiatives, such as the Nansen Dialogue Centre, can provide a platform for exchange between groups. The assumption that stereotypes and thus hate speech arise from ignorance of what is foreign is to be countered through dialogue. Education, Elvir Djuliman stressed, is key to overcoming fear and the resulting hatred. Peace promotion, media education and inter-religious dialogue must not only remain part of social initiatives but must also be enshrined in official school curricula. This is where the limitations of many civil society organizations and the need for cooperation with state actors become apparent.

Readiness for self-reflection

The panellists agreed that the state has a key position in the fight against hate crimes and hate speech. Despite an initiative of the UN for a common understanding of hate speech, there is no binding definition at the international and national levels. What is needed is a voluntary commitment on the part of states to create awareness of discrimination against marginalized groups in their structures in order to enact laws and prevent structural discrimination. This requires the willingness of a government to address discrimination and its structural causes.

As the panellists made clear, state involvement should therefore not be limited to mere prosecution. Cooperation with civil society and the promotion of inclusive spaces for exchange and dialogue are an important part of the fight against hate crime and hate speech.

Are dialogue and education enough?

The question remains: is a living democracy enough protection against hate speech and hate crimes? The impact of individual peace education initiatives often remains unclear. Often there are no figures on the spread and impact of hate speech and hate crimes and the perpetrators. The feedback of the participants of the online session showed how complex addressing hate speech and hate crimes is. The relationship between state regulation of social media platforms and freedom of expression was addressed, as was the role of images of masculinity in conflict regions. Many contributions reflected the question of individual or structural prevention of hate speech and hate crimes. It should be noted that neither state nor civil society initiatives alone are sufficient to successfully counter hate speech and hate crimes.

The online session was part of a series of events on hate speech and hate crimes ahead of GAAMAC’s fourth global meeting in November 2021.


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