13th UN Forum on Minority Issues: Pandemic-driven rise in hatred must be stopped

In November 2020, the 13th UN Forum on Minority Issues took place, this year it was held online and dedicated to hate speech and overcoming it. Presented there were the recommendations developed during previous regional forums, including the European Regional Forum on Minority Issues, in which the experts of Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” had taken part. More than 70 regional recommendations had been adopted concerning international legal and institutional regulations in order to create a safe information environment for minorities. Regional recommendations will be taken into account in the report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which will be made in March 2021.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in its general recommendation No. 15 considers hate speech as statements containing advocacy, promotion or incitement of enmity, denigration, vilification of the whole communities or their particular representatives, hatred or harassment of them, spreading negative stereotypes about them, which are stigmatizing or threatening. The Commission points out that hate speech can take the form of public denial, justification or condonation of hate crimes, glorification of persons for having committed hate crimes; can reflect or promote superiority over those to whom such statements are addressed; be aimed at inciting violence, threats or discrimination. ECRI is going to update the standards regarding protection of minorities from hate speech by the end of 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic also gave rise to a new wave of hate speech and discrimination: in media and on social networks, ethnic Chinese and Asians, representatives of ethnic and religious minorities have been accused of spreading the virus, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories flourished, migrant-phobia and anti-Romani/Gypsy stereotypes were stirred up.

Addressing the short-term and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN guidance note on addressing and countering COVID-19 related to hate speech (May 2020) is aimed at providing guidance for authorities, social media, mass media and civil society in addition to the earlier adopted Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.

The problems of increasing inequality of groups more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic were reflected in the European Commission’s Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025, which had been issued on September 18, 2020. The Council of Europe noted that gender inequality lead to intersectional discrimination against women and girls belonging to minorities, and the Council gave special attention to the latter in its new anti-sexism standards, Recommendation “Preventing and Combatting Sexism”.

Earlier, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance called on governments to ensure that vulnerable groups have access to all necessary services during the lockdown and recommended to include human rights specialists in working groups or advisory councils working to overcome the difficulties and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission noted that the authorities had a primary responsibility to protect and support victims of hatred, especially during this difficult period when marginalized groups became ever more vulnerable.

Social media has become the most popular tool for spreading hate speech during the pandemic. For example, in 2020, hate speech on Facebook grew drastically from 10 million to 23 million noted cases, and this data is only from automatic identifiers that work in just a few dozen languages, while this social media platform supports a total of more than a hundred languages. It is not always possible to remove inappropriate content from social networks in time; representatives of vulnerable groups often do not know that they can contact the administration of the social network for protection. According to experts, of the three types of minorities – ethnic, religious and linguistic – it is the latter that are most often deprived of protection from hate speech on social networks.

The fundamental principles of the international legal response to online hate speech are contained in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression. In early 2020, a new Committee of Experts on Combating Hate Speech was established within the Council of Europe to prepare draft recommendations on combating hate speech, including in online environment.

Social media have been known to play a key role not only in spreading hate speech, but also in inciting hate crimes. Thus, in Kazakhstan, during the pogroms of the Dungan minority’s compact settlements in the south of the country in February 2020, social networks were used not only for insults, but also calls to join the pogromists, and after this conflict, the number of hate messages and disinformation has only increased. The lack of adequate response by the government officials to the actions of the criminals actually meant tacit approval of the pogromists, thereby increasing the risks of attacks on other ethnic minorities, for example, Uighurs, Kurds, etc.

In Uzbekistan, social networks are being systematically used as one of the main means for not only bullying, threats and extortion, but also organizing attacks on LGBTI+ people. ADC ”Memorial” wrote about this in detail in its report “LGBTI+ in the region of Central Asia: repressions, discrimination, exclusion”.

Hate speech coming from public and religious leaders, government officials and other influential individuals is most dangerous because it shapes public opinion. In addition, hate speech is becoming a tool of dirty political campaigns and technologies: for example, in Kyrgyzstan, opponents of one of the political parties widely sent out SMS messages that this party would “continue to defend and promote gay rights”, using the high level of public homophobia to reduce the public rating of their opponents.

Hate speech often prevails on the Internet when discussing certain groups, such as the Romani minority, especially in the Eastern Europe and Central Asian region. Members of right-wing groups also use it for their propaganda, which leads to hate crimes. Thus, compact Roma settlements are systematically subjected to pogroms in Russia and Ukraine.

In the OSCE region, about 70-80% of hate crimes in 2018 were committed against religious and ethnic minorities. In most countries, punishment for hate crimes formally exists but is rarely applied. This problem is especially relevant for the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in most of which there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, while law enforcement and judicial authorities rarely include a hate motive when qualifying the crimes.