The speech of Brian J. Williams, UN Resident Coordinator in Albania, during the annual meeting of the Albanian Ombudsperson
“The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech.”
Excellency the President of Republic
Honored Speaker of Parliament
Madam Ombudsperson, Members of Diplomatic Corps, friends,
“The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech.” This is a quote from Adama Dieng, Secretary General’s special envoy on the Prevention of Genocide who is also working in the Western Balkans on initiatives around interfaith tolerance.
Hate speech is a global concern.
Only in May of this year, the UN Secretary General wrote, i quote: “Around the world, we are seeing a disturbing groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance … social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as platforms for bigotry … Public discourse is being weaponized for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called ‘other’”.
The SG continued: “This is not an isolated phenomenon or of the loud voices of a few people on the fringes of society. Hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike.”
The Secretary-General asked his senior advisers to develop a strategy against hate speech and the strategy is relevant everywhere, including Albania.
Interestingly, the first words of the strategy state that there is not an accepted international legal definition of hate speech. Hate speech is a tricky thing – the line between freedom of speech and hate speech is thin indeed, and I will come back with that later.
From the UN global strategy of hate speech, I take two key points:
- the first is that when someone is targeted for the membership in the group that they belong to, rather than because of an individual opinion, then this is a major red flag we all should pay attention to because hate speech might be at play
- the second thing I take away from the strategy is the particular incitement to violence, the incitement to discrimination that is so deeply dangerous.
Here in Albania, earlier this fall, there was a vicious and violent attack against a transgender individual. There is no question in my mind that the prevailing use of discriminatory, derogatory language against the LGBT community in Albania has helped to create an environment that allows such horrific acts to occur. Beyond being an example of hate speech, I take this occasion to say that we call on the authorities to make sure that a thorough investigation of this particular incident is done and that the culprits of this anti-democratic, simply put anti-human act are brought to justice.
Or let us talk about another phenomena that exists too much in Albania, violence against women. Hate speech against women is violence against women. Hate speech is directly damaging to women who are targeted, perhaps causing psychological harm, perhaps constraining their opportunities, perhaps creating a sense of self-censorship of action that is disempowering. And hate speech creates an environment where real violence can occur.
In Albania we have insufficient data about hate speech directed at women. We would like to see the Government, the Ombudsman’s office, civil society and others undertake more research.
This is especially true in the case of social media and online abuse. It has been estimated already that 23 per cent of women have reported experiencing online abuse at least once in their lifetime.
We know from other countries that women in politics, women public figures and women journalists are particularly affected by hate speech. If left unaddressed, hate speech can become a serious deterrent to the meaningful participation of women in public life.
While real progress against hate speech – like all cultural change – requires society-wide mobilization, there are still specific legal steps that can be taken in Albania. For example, the Criminal Code includes incitement of hate or dispute as a criminal offense based on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, but not – surprisingly - gender.
Moving from gender, let me say few words about children, families and education.
Discrimination, hate and violence are all learned behaviors that are often planted even in the youngest minds. If children learn to associate difference with privileges for some and deprivations for others, with domination and submission, with the right to be or not to be in this world – then democracy itself is at risk.
Education is therefore key. The UN supports investment in inclusive education from the earliest possible ages. Including but even going beyond the primary classroom, restorative justice for children needs to be expanded; parents need to be engaged, especially those in vulnerable communities.
Online safety, discussed in the context of women, is also as important for children.
Concerning freedom of expression – the other side of this line.
If efforts to prevent hate speech result in the narrowing of the right to freedom of expression, then our societies will end up being less democratic, and not more.
Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means preventing opinions from escalating into something more dangerous particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence against individuals because of the group that they belong to=.
Concerning media freedom and the recent legislation, allow me to confirm that the United Nations, as expressed by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva and as presented to parliament some weeks ago, subscribes to the same concerns that have been expressed by other international human rights bodies. There are three key principles here: self-regulation is best; punishment should be proportionate; and judgements should be made by independent courts -- precisely because of this delicate balance between freedom of expression and the concerns of hate speech.
The United Nations believes that a multi-prong effort is required to prevent hate speech and foster a democratic culture of vigorous and profound policy and social debate which nevertheless remains respectful and democratic.
Efforts must include the capacity building of independent human rights institutions such as the Albanian People’s Advocate, the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination and the Commissioner for the Right to Information and Protection of Personal Data, and also let me add INSTAT which is also one of these institutions. These institutions require adequate funding and their recommendations must be debated in parliament and acted upon by Government.
Efforts should include creating a meaningful space for civil society to function, injecting facts and analysis into public debate.
Certainly, the media should be deeply involved, and I am pleased that the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNDP has a programme called Free and Equal which is about working with the LGBT community.
The United Nations family of agencies is pleased to work with the Government and other partners, for example with UNHCR on refugees, International Organization for Migration on migrants’ issues, UNDP on LGBT issues, UNICEF on child rights, UN Women and UNFPA on women’s rights and preventing violence against women, and much more.
Together – with courage, with a willingness to speak out, with political leadership, and with investments of real resources – we can make a difference.