March 20, 2024
By Katherine Marshall, UNA-NCA Board of Directors; Senior Fellow, Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue at Georgetown University

Among the many sessions during the 55th session of the Human Rights Council (26 February to 5 April 2024), two that I attended centered on responding to different forms of hate speech, especially involving religious symbols. Sharp divides and strong views expressed offered striking evidence of the challenges involved in translating core principles of human rights into practice in our deeply polarized world.

Setting the scene, the Geneva UN world focuses sharply on the HRC during its sessions, with continuous meetings and active government and civil society participation. Heavy agendas enforce a time discipline: participants, following the initial statements, have one and a half minutes to intervene, with the microphone cut off at precisely that point. Many though not all UN member states plus a range of civil society organizations can thus participate.

The topic dominating the two discussions was the clear evidence of rising hate speech and violent incidents, in different world regions, that include grave violations of human rights. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, observed that: “Xenophobia and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, gender, ethnicity and migrant status are rising to acutely disturbing levels today.” A central tension focuses on the threshold at which hate speech regulation is allowed: should freedom of speech be protected where it falls short of clear incitement to violence, hostility, or discrimination or should forms of speech and action that do not cross that threshold be sanctioned nonetheless because they are deeply offensive to religious communities?

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Nazila Ghanea, presented her 2024 report on “Hatred on the basis of religion or belief” on March 5, with discussion that day and on March 6. Then on March 8, Volker Türk, after highlighting the importance of International Women’s Day, led a panel discussion on “countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence “.

Ghanea focused on the disturbing trends of rising violations of FoRB and hate speech (including incidents of Koran burning). These trends, she argued forcefully, must be seen as evidence of a broader set of phenomena, signs of and contributing to polarization and intolerance. Incidents range from active incitement, including state sponsored discrimination, to “lone wolf” and less grave events. Dialogue, political will, and civil society action offer ways forward. The active discussion highlighted widely shared concerns but very different responses, many arguing for strong legal restrictions while others highlighted that the essential solution must lie in more, not less speech, to foster understanding and social cohesion.

Ghanea’s concluding comments set the challenge out well: “Expressions of hatred based on religion or belief are, in themselves, a serious issue to which States must be sensitive, and respond to in a holistic manner. It is of fundamental importance to note, however, that they are expressions of a broader social reality – that of disdain and discrimination towards a religious or belief group – which may have deep socio-political and historical roots. This broader context must be addressed if advocacy of hatred based on religion or belief is to be meaningfully combatted. This requires looking beyond technical legal solutions alone. Religion or belief may serve as a coded language to promote broader xenophobic or other aims. This can be exacerbated by structural factors, such as the criminalization or stigmatization of certain religious or belief groups through anti-blasphemy, anti-apostasy, counter-terrorism or draconian migration laws. The online environment means that such advocacy spreads with greater speed and reach, being recycled and re-used by ‘malicious intermediaries’ in differing contexts.”

Both Ghanea’s session and the discussion on March 8 highlighted active contention around approaches reflected in resolution 53/1, adopted in 2023, that addresses action to address especially desecration of religious objects, and HRC 16/18 which underpins the Rabat Plan of Action and the Istanbul Process, agreed upon in 2011. Simply put, the Rabat plan and Istanbul Process look to implementation of the resolution (which was also approved by the General Assembly with its Resolution 66/167). The intergovernmental policy framework aims to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against, persons based on religion or belief. The approach has been seen as an important step in international efforts to confront intolerance and sets out to define six thresholds to guide response: (1) the social and political context, (2) status of the speaker, (3) intent to incite the audience against a target group; (4) content and form of the speech; (5) extent of its dissemination; and (6) likelihood of harm, including imminence.

At the HRC discussion, many speakers argued that t the Rabat Plan of Action has not been fully implemented and does not go far enough. Counter arguments were reflected in a statement by Irene Kahn, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. that puts robust emphasis on the importance of freedom of speech: “Any restriction of freedom of expression under international law must be lawful (precisely worded, clear, accessible), non-discriminatory, and must be strictly necessary and proportionate to ensure respect for the rights and reputation of others, or to protect national security, public order, health and morals. The protection of religion, religious objects, holy books or religious sentiments is not recognized as a legitimate ground for restricting the right to freedom of expression. The purpose of human rights law is to protect individuals, not to shield religious doctrine, objects, symbols or texts from criticism.”

Volker Türk’s Office “has embarked on work to set out a series of measures that can be adopted by States and other actors to address religious hatred; and the deliberate – and often politically motivated – weaponization of religion to target the other, in particular minorities.” This reflects another underlying theme: the sense that promotion of hateful attitudes based on religion or belief often serves concrete political and economic ends: mobilized to justify a range of political projects, including restrictions on migration, dispossession of land, economic exploitation, boycotts, and the closure of businesses.

The discussions will clearly continue.

Need to Know


More >

Upcoming Events

More >