Macdonald: Gross minimization and denial of genocide and war crimes is a widespread form of hate speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina
18 June 2023
An interview with the UN Resident Coordinator in BiH, Ingrid Macdonald, on the International Day against Hate Speech.
SARAJEVO, 18 June (FENA) - A widespread form of hate speech in BiH is the gross minimization and denial of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the 1992-1995 war, as established by international courts and the glorification of individuals convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide before international and domestic courts, said the resident coordinator of the United Nations in BiH Ingrid Macdonald in an interview with FENA news agency on June 18, the International Day against Hate Speech.
Macdonald says there is no official definition of hate speech in international human rights law. However, prompted by increasingly widespread patterns of hate speech around the world, in 2019 the UN Secretary-General presented the UN Strategy and Action Plan on Hate Speech, a key reference document by which the UN supports the efforts of member states in the fight against hate speech, including Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“This Strategy defines hate speech as ‘any communication in oral and written form or behaviour, which attacks or uses derogatory or discriminatory language aimed at a person or group of persons because of who they are, in other words, on the basis of their religion, ethnic affiliation, nationality, race, skin colour, origin, gender or other identity factors,” such as sexual orientation, medical condition, social status or profession”, said Macdonald.
According to her, hate speech can be transmitted through any form of expression. So it can be a speech, a poem, graffiti, a mural, a photo or a video. It can be distributed online or offline.
Regardless of the form, hate speech is problematic because it is inherently discriminatory. It is often a symptom of deeply entrenched discrimination, xenophobia, racism, and/or misogyny.
“Expressions of hate speech that constitute an incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence are strictly prohibited under international human rights law, as well as by Bosnia and Herzegovina legislation. In order to help assess whether a particular statement reaches the level of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, the United Nations has supported the development of the “Rabat” threshold test on hate speech. It sets out six criteria for assessing whether hate speech constitutes a prohibited, particularly dangerous form of incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence," said Macdonald, stating that it includes the impact of the author of hate speech, the extent of dissemination, the intent/motive of the speech, the content and context, as well as the likelihood of harm occurring.
The Rabat test is a useful tool that can, for example, provide guidance to the judiciary in dealing with hate speech cases.
“The difference between hate speech and free speech can be unclear or thin for some people. However, at the UN, we clearly emphasize that addressing hate speech does not mean restricting freedom of expression. Instead, the focus is on how to prevent the escalation of hate speech into something more dangerous,” she pointed out.
From a global perspective, the spread of hate speech-related laws being misused against journalists and human rights defenders is almost as viral as the spread of hate speech itself, as recently emphasized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. Broad laws - which allow states to censor speech they find uncomfortable and to threaten or detain those who question government policy or criticize officials - violate rights and undermine essential public debate. Instead of criminalizing protected speech, we need states - as well as companies - to take urgent steps in addressing incitement to hatred and violence," said Türk.
The United Nations considers that any form of hate speech is concerning because hate speech is inherently discriminatory. It reflects contempt and lack of respect for, or rejection and dehumanization of specific groups based on identity factors. Moreover, hate speech can escalate into incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, particularly when emanating from influential figures, when repeated and tolerated.
"We can all recall the level of hate speech observed in the region prior to and throughout the conflict in the 1990s. In Rwanda, hate speech incited the genocide. More recently, in 2018 in Myanmar, we saw hate speech on social media contributing to large-scale violence. It is therefore critical to address this phenomenon with a human rights-based approach,” said Macdonald.
Hate speech in BiH often targets individuals or groups based on their ethnicity, religion or gender.
Macdonald says that every day they see women, especially public figures, exposed to significant levels of hate speech and abuse, especially in the online sphere.
“Hate speech based on sexual orientation is also worrisome, as we recently had the opportunity to see homophobic comments by political leaders and beyond, calls to violence and death threats on social networks,” she stressed.
“Another widespread form of hate speech in BiH is the gross minimization and denial of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the 1992-1995 conflict, established by international courts, and the glorification of individuals convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide before international and domestic courts. Both forms of hate speech are prohibited by the Criminal Code of BiH. In addition to undermining international justice, it also represents the denial of the irreparable suffering of victims, survivors and their families. Such talk dehumanizes victims and perpetuates trauma and fear while planting the seeds for potential recurrence. What worries me in BiH is that some leaders, including prominent political figures, practice hate speech and repeat it for years, without any consequences. Around the world, we see that hate speech, especially when it is repeated and goes unchecked, has a profound effect on the divisions in society. Here it is often associated with historical revisionism and the undermining or stigmatization of different communities,” the UN representative said.
Such discourses, which plays on emotion and fear, are a means to fuel or maintain distrust and division for political gains. We have observed such trends during elections where hate speech is invoked as a means to attract voters by fostering fear.
"Few candidates in the last general elections spoke about the economic and social conditions of citizens or strengthening institutions, when these should be basic priorities of all political actors, especially as Bosnia and Herzegovina faced record inflation and emigration of its youth. Rebuilding trust is essential for the country and communities to be able to move forward,” she said.
Asked how to deal with hate speech by politicians, especially considering the effect on the reconciliation process that is still ongoing in BiH, she stated that the fact is that BiH has laws at the state and entity levels that prohibit the most severe forms of hate speech.
“Unfortunately, we are concerned about the lack of implementation. The role of institutions entrusted with the protection of human rights, including the fight against hate speech, is crucial in order to ensure accountability and possibly reduce and prevent the repetition of hate speech and its escalation. Impunity for hate speech by politicians tends to spread and feed this phenomenon, to normalize it. Politicians have a responsibility to refrain from the use of hate speech and to condemn its use, no matter whom such speech comes from,” she noted.
Codes of conduct e.g. within legislative bodies, political parties, the public service and in the private sector can be useful, especially if there is some oversight mechanism to ensure warnings and adequate sanctions, while fully protecting freedom of expression.
Monitoring by competent institutions, including the Human Rights Ombudsman institution, the Regulatory Communications Agency, the Central Election Commission, and by independent civil society actors is also essential to track down the various forms and evolution of hate speech and to help addressing this phenomenon
Hate speech is particularly widespread on social media and as youth are main users of such media, it particularly exposes them to hate speech.
"Education at the earliest stages, including media / social media literacy, as well as civic and human rights education to promote non-discrimination is critical in any society. Everything starts with the word. Both good and evil. If it is deemed acceptable to speak with hatred, the risk it that it will become acceptable to act with hatred.", said Macdonald.
Countering hate speech is a long-term process and should be continuing. As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a job for everyone.”
"It is thus a whole of society duty which must involve political and religious leaders, the education system, the media, the cultural sphere, sports, families. As everyone must continuously counter discrimination on any grounds, everyone must also counter its manifestations in the form of hate speech," stated the UN Resident coordinator.
One of the topics of discussion was the UN's position regarding the announced re-criminalization of defamation in Republika Srpska and the sanctioning of the spread of fake news and hate speech in Canton Sarajevo. The media community throughout the country strongly opposes this attempt, fearing that they will not be able to perform their job adequately.
"The UN has a clear stance on these legislative initiatives and firmly stands with journalists and other civil society actors who advocate against the adoption of such laws. Two UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association, Irene Khan and Clement Voule, leading global experts on these issues, have issued a statement on the draft amendments to the Criminal Code of Republika Srpska. They have called for the withdrawal of the draft amendments, clearly expressing their opposition to the re-criminalization of defamation. They have also highlighted various shortcomings in the draft, particularly the use of vague terms that could be subject to arbitrary interpretation. They emphasized that if these amendments are adopted, they would undermine freedom of expression - not just freedom of the media - throughout and beyond Republika Srpska. This law can have an impact on any person in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore, the necessity of such legislative initiatives is questionable. Indeed, there is existing legislation throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina that prohibits incitement to hatred, hostility, and violence. Therefore, additional legislation in these areas is not justified," said Macdonald.
A significant number of defamation lawsuits against journalists already indicate a concerning trend that can be seen as strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Macdonald says that criminalizing misinformation is risky, and in many countries, we have seen how legislation in this regard is used to restrict freedom of expression, particularly voices critical of authorities.
"As already mentioned, the role of institutions, including the judiciary and human rights protection institutions, is crucial in safeguarding and maintaining the right to freedom of thought and expression from any inappropriate limitations that would undermine the secure, free, and legitimate exercise of this right, taking into account the public interest and the common good," said in an interview with Fena, the UN Resident Coordinator Ingrid Macdonald.