UN Forum on Minority Issues – focusing on hate speech against minorities

This year the thirteenth session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues took place online between the 19-20th of November 2020. It focused on the connected issues of hate speech, social media and minorities. The event is traditionally organised annually in Geneva, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year it held its session virtually. The Forum is considered to be a unique and crucial platform in securing the opportunity for stakeholders on the topic of minority issues to represent their interests within the UN framework and at an international level. Based on this established practice, besides state governments, representatives of certain minority groups and institutions, non-governmental bodies, the academic sphere, as well as other stakeholders are able to let their voices be heard via the Forum.    

Participants of the Forum meet for two working days, with the aim to express and discuss their views on the basis of the arranged agenda. The event was prepared and guided by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues – the French-speaking Acadian-Canadian Dr Fernand de Varennes – who reports on the thematic recommendations of the Forum to the UN Human Rights Council. The thematic recommendations of this year’s session will be presented at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021.

Similarly to previous years, during thematic panel discussions of the Forum, the invited speakers summarise their views on a given issue in the first round. Subsequently, participants had the opportunity to take the floor and share their experiences in the form of an interactive dialogue.  At this year’s event, 190 representatives of state governments, minority and other organizations, institutes and groups, as well certain bodies of the academic and civil sphere participated in the dialogue and commented on the given topics. The opportunity of making remarks was bound to prior registration by the participants. The thematic panels included the following categories: the causes, scale and impact of hate speech targeting minorities in social media; international legal and institutional framework; regulation of online hate speech; the role and responsibility of intergovernmental organizations, states, internet companies and social media platforms; and positive initiatives to address online hate speech, the role of national human rights institutions, human rights organizations, civil society and other stakeholders.

The Forum was opened, among others, by Ms. Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger – the President of the Human Rights Council, by Ms. Michelle Bachelet - the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and by the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Mr. Fernand de Varennes. The president of the UN Human Rights Council emphasised that from its establishment in 2007, the UN Forum on Minority Issues has been able to discuss numerous important issues in the frame of open dialogue positively affecting minorities and minority groups, and which dialogue could not be effectively pursued without the representatives of these groups. Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger also highlighted that modern media secures a platform for increasing discrimination against minorities and the intensification of hate-speech is also deepened by the present pandemic situation. The High Commissioner stressed, inter alia, that the spread of hate speech can also be used by certain political powers for reaching their objectives. Ms. Bachelet underlined the importance of the UN action plan on hate speech (UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, May 2019) defining the term and resting on the freedom of opinion and expression; therefore, it would be crucial to better deal with the issue of hate speech. Furthermore, it is also essential to collect data and information on hate speech, as well as to call the attention of citizens to the phenomenon. According to the High Commissioner, two tendencies can be observed in connection with hate speech: on the one hand, perpetrators are not properly penalized, but on the other hand, hate speech can be used as a reference point for punishing those formulating certain criticism towards the authorities. She has also noted that offline hate speech should be regulated in the online sphere as well, and the borderline between freedom of opinion as well as the expression on one side and hate speech on the other should be clearly defined, although, it currently causes certain difficulties.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues recalled that one of the four thematic priorities of his mandate is tackling hate speech against minorities, and stressed that from last year one of his aims became to organize, besides the UN Forum on Minority Issues, other regional forums as well. Therefore, in the last year, three regional forums have taken place on the issue of education, language and minorities. This year, due to pandemic, only two regional forums could be realized. Mr Varennes referred to hate against minorities as the ‘virus of the mind’ which is more and more ‘infecting’ societies. He also emphasized that the UN action plan on hate speech also confirmed a significant increase in the number of xenophobic, racist, intolerant, anti-Semitic anti-Muslim and anti-Christian outlets. He added that it is undeniable that in our days national, ethnic, regional and linguistic minorities, migrants, refugees, women and ‘others’ became the main targets of hate speech which is being also generated by social media. Dr de Varennes emphasized that hate speech often leads to hate crimes and violence, and as it can be observed in our history, in certain cases it may even lead to genocide. Therefore, the spread of the ‘virus of hate’ should be stopped as soon as possible and the available best practices have to be followed.

The representatives of the Permanent Mission of Hungary in Geneva participating and making remarks on the event stressed the importance of UN Special Rapporteur’s work, as well as the positive development that tackling hate speech against minorities has been defined as one of the thematic priorities of his mandate. The Hungarian participant added that for Hungary the fight against hate speech is crucial mainly in connection with national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, and referred not only to the importance of UN documents on the issue, but to other related recommendations and objectives, for instance of the Council of Europe and of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, such as the Tallinn Guidelines. It has also been emphasized that hate speech may often lead to other serious violations of rights and crimes, undermining respect for minority rights, endangering social cohesion and securitizing minority issues. Therefore, it is of overriding importance that different segments of the society could react to the problem properly.   

As highlighted above, the thematic recommendations of the Forum are going to be presented by the Special Rapporteur to the Human Rights Council in March 2021, thus they will become publicly available. 

The broadcast of the Forum can be accessed via: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/forum-on-minority-issues/

Varga Csilla - 2020.11.22.

Image: UN