United Nations


International Convention on the Elimination of A ll Forms of Racial Discrimination

Distr.: General

26 September 2013

Original: English

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

General recommendation No. 35

Combating racist hate speech*


1.At its eightieth session, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (the Committee) decided to hold a thematic discussion on racist hate speech during its eighty-first session. The discussion took place on 28 August 2012 and focused on understanding the causes and consequences of racist hate speech, and how the resources of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the Convention) may be mobilized to combat it. Participants in the discussion included, in addition to members of the Committee, representatives from permanent missions to the United Nations Office in Geneva, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, academics and interested individuals.

2.Following the discussion, the Committee expressed its intention to work on drafting a general recommendation to provide guidance on the requirements of the Convention in the area of racist hate speech in order to assist States parties in discharging their obligations, including reporting obligations. The present general recommendation is of relevance to all stakeholders in the fight against racial discrimination, and seeks to contribute to the promotion of understanding, lasting peace and security among communities, peoples and States.

Approach adopted

3.In drafting the recommendation, the Committee has taken account of its extensive practice in combating racist hate speech, concern about which has engaged the full span of procedures under the Convention. The Committee has also underlined the role of racist hate speech in processes leading to mass violations of human rights and genocide, and in conflict situations. Key general recommendations of the Committee that address hate speech include general recommendations No. 7 (1985) relating to the implementation of article 4; No. 15 (1993) on article 4, which stressed the compatibility between article 4 and the right to freedom of expression; No. 25 (2000) on gender-related dimensions of racial discrimination; No. 27 (2000) on discrimination against Roma; No. 29 (2002) on descent; No. 30 (2004) on discrimination against non-citizens; No. 31 (2005) on the prevention of racial discrimination in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice system; and No. 34 (2011) on racial discrimination against people of African descent. Many general recommendations adopted by the Committee relate directly or indirectly to hate speech issues, bearing in mind that effectively combating racist hate speech involves the mobilization of the full normative and procedural resources of the Convention.

4.By virtue of its work in implementing the Convention as a living instrument, the Committee engages with the wider human rights environment, awareness of which suffuses the Convention. In gauging the scope of freedom of expression, it should be recalled that the right is integrated into the Convention and is not simply articulated outside it: the principles of the Convention contribute to a fuller understanding of the parameters of the right in contemporary international human rights law. The Committee has integrated this right to freedom of expression into its work on combating hate speech, commenting where appropriate on its lack of effective implementation and, where necessary, drawing upon its elaboration in sister human rights bodies.

II.Racist hate speech

5.The drafters of the Convention were acutely aware of the contribution of speech to creating a climate of racial hatred and discrimination, and reflected at length on the dangers it posed. In the Convention, racism is referred to only in the context of “racist doctrines and practices” in the preamble, a phrase closely linked to the condemnation in article 4 of dissemination of ideas of racial superiority. While the term hate speech is not explicitly used in the Convention, this lack of explicit reference has not impeded the Committee from identifying and naming hate speech phenomena and exploring the relationship between speech practices and the standards of the Convention. The present recommendation focuses on the ensemble of Convention provisions that cumulatively enable the identification of expression that constitutes hate speech.

6.Racist hate speech addressed in Committee practice has included all the specific speech forms referred to in article 4 directed against groups recognized in article 1 of the Convention — which forbids discrimination on grounds of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin — such as indigenous peoples, descent-based groups, and immigrants or non-citizens, including migrant domestic workers, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as speech directed against women members of these and other vulnerable groups. In the light of the principle of intersectionality, and bearing in mind that “criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine or tenets of faith” should not be prohibited or punished, the Committee’s attention has also been engaged by hate speech targeting persons belonging to certain ethnic groups who profess or practice a religion different from the majority, including expressions of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other similar manifestations of hatred against ethno-religious groups, as well as extreme manifestations of hatred such as incitement to genocide and to terrorism. Stereotyping and stigmatization of members of protected groups has also been the subject of expressions of concern and recommendations adopted by the Committee.

7.Racist hate speech can take many forms and is not confined to explicitly racial remarks. As is the case with discrimination under article 1, speech attacking particular racial or ethnic groups may employ indirect language in order to disguise its targets and objectives. In line with their obligations under the Convention, States parties should give due attention to all manifestations of racist hate speech and take effective measures to combat them. The principles articulated in the present recommendation apply to racist hate speech, whether emanating from individuals or groups, in whatever forms it manifests itself, orally or in print, or disseminated through electronic media, including the Internet and social networking sites, as well as non-verbal forms of expression such as the display of racist symbols, images and behaviour at public gatherings, including sporting events.

III.Resources of the Convention

8.The identification and combating of hate speech practices is integral to the achievement of the objectives of the Convention — which is dedicated to the elimination of racial discrimination in all its forms. While article 4 of the Convention has functioned as the principal vehicle for combating hate speech, other articles in the Convention make distinctive contributions to fulfilling its objectives. The due regard clause in article 4 explicitly links that article with article 5, which guarantees the right to equality before the law, without racial discrimination in the enjoyment of rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Article 7 highlights the role of “teaching, education, culture and information” in the promotion of interethnic understanding and tolerance. Article 2 incorporates the undertaking by States parties to eliminate racial discrimination, obligations that receive their widest expression in article 2, paragraph 1 (d). Article 6 focuses on securing effective protection and remedies for victims of racial discrimination and the right to seek “just and adequate reparation or satisfaction” for damage suffered. The present recommendation focuses principally on articles 4, 5 and 7 of the Convention.

9.As a minimum requirement, and without prejudice to further measures, comprehensive legislation against racial discrimination, including civil and administrative law as well as criminal law, is indispensable to combating racist hate speech effectively.

Article 4

10.The chapeau of article 4 incorporates the obligation to take “immediate and positive measures” to eradicate incitement and discrimination, a stipulation that complements and reinforces obligations under other articles of the Convention to dedicate the widest possible range of resources to the eradication of hate speech. In general recommendation No. 32 (2009) on the meaning and scope of special measures in the Convention, the Committee summarized “measures” as comprising “legislative, executive, administrative, budgetary and regulatory instruments…as well as plans, policies, programmes and…regimes”. The Committee recalls the mandatory nature of article 4, and observes that during the adoption of the Convention, it “was regarded as central to the struggle against racial discrimination”, an evaluation which has been maintained in Committee practice. Article 4 comprises elements relating to speech and the organizational context for the production of speech, serves the functions of prevention and deterrence, and provides for sanctions when deterrence fails. The article also has an expressive function in underlining the international community’s abhorrence of racist hate speech, understood as a form of other-directed speech which rejects the core human rights principles of human dignity and equality and seeks to degrade the standing of individuals and groups in the estimation of society.

11.In the chapeau and subparagraph (a), regarding “ideas or theories of superiority” or “racial superiority or hatred” respectively, the term “based on” is employed to characterize speech impugned by the Convention. The term is understood by the Committee in the context of article 1 as equivalent to “on the grounds of” and in principle holds the same meaning for article 4. The provisions on dissemination of ideas of racial superiority are a forthright expression of the preventive function of the Convention and are an important complement to the provisions on incitement.

12.The Committee recommends that the criminalization of forms of racist expression should be reserved for serious cases, to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, while less serious cases should be addressed by means other than criminal law, taking into account, inter alia, the nature and extent of the impact on targeted persons and groups. The application of criminal sanctions should be governed by principles of legality, proportionality and necessity.

13.As article 4 is not self-executing, States parties are required by its terms to adopt legislation to combat racist hate speech that falls within its scope. In the light of the provisions of the Convention and the elaboration of its principles in general recommendation No. 15 and the present recommendation, the Committee recommends that the States parties declare and effectively sanction as offences punishable by law:

(a)All dissemination of ideas based on racial or ethnic superiority or hatred, by whatever means;

(b)Incitement to hatred, contempt or discrimination against members of a group on grounds of their race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin;

(c)Threats or incitement to violence against persons or groups on the grounds in (b) above;

(d)Expression of insults, ridicule or slander of persons or groups or justification of hatred, contempt or discrimination on the grounds in (b) above, when it clearly amounts to incitement to hatred or discrimination;

(e)Participation in organizations and activities which promote and incite racial discrimination.

14.The Committee recommends that public denials or attempts to justify crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, as defined by international law, should be declared as offences punishable by law, provided that they clearly constitute incitement to racial violence or hatred. The Committee also underlines that “the expression of opinions about historical facts” should not be prohibited or punished.

15.While article 4 requires that certain forms of conduct be declared offences punishable by law, it does not supply detailed guidance for the qualification of forms of conduct as criminal offences. On the qualification of dissemination and incitement as offences punishable by law, the Committee considers that the following contextual factors should be taken into account:

The content and form of speech: whether the speech is provocative and direct, in what form it is constructed and disseminated, and the style in which it is delivered.

The economic, social and political climate prevalent at the time the speech was made and disseminated, including the existence of patterns of discrimination against ethnic and other groups, including indigenous peoples. Discourses which in one context are innocuous or neutral may take on a dangerous significance in another: in its indicators on genocide the Committee emphasized the relevance of locality in appraising the meaning and potential effects of racist hate speech.

The position or status of the speaker in society and the audience to which the speech is directed. The Committee consistently draws attention to the role of politicians and other public opinion-formers in contributing to the creation of a negative climate towards groups protected by the Convention, and has encouraged such persons and bodies to adopt positive approaches directed to the promotion of intercultural understanding and harmony. The Committee is aware of the special importance of freedom of speech in political matters and also that its exercise carries with it special duties and responsibilities.

The reach of the speech, including the nature of the audience and the means of transmission: whether the speech was disseminated through mainstream media or the Internet, and the frequency and extent of the communication, in particular when repetition suggests the existence of a deliberate strategy to engender hostility towards ethnic and racial groups.

The objectives of the speech :speech protecting or defending the human rights of individuals and groups should not be subject to criminal or other sanctions.

16.Incitement characteristically seeks to influence others to engage in certain forms of conduct, including the commission of crime, through advocacy or threats. Incitement may be express or implied, through actions such as displays of racist symbols or distribution of materials as well as words. The notion of incitement as an inchoate crime does not require that the incitement has been acted upon, but in regulating the forms of incitement referred to in article 4, States parties should take into account, as important elements in the incitement offences, in addition to the considerations outlined in paragraph 14 above, the intention of the speaker, and the imminent risk or likelihood that the conduct desired or intended by the speaker will result from the speech in question, considerations which also apply to the other offences listed in paragraph 13.

17.The Committee reiterates that it is not enough to declare the forms of conduct in article 4 as offences; the provisions of the article must also be effectively implemented. Effective implementation is characteristically achieved through investigations of offences set out in the Convention and, where appropriate, the prosecution of offenders. The Committee recognizes the principle of expediency in the prosecution of alleged offenders, and observes that it must in each case be applied in the light of the guarantees laid down in the Convention and in other instruments of international law. In this and other respects under the Convention, the Committee recalls that it is not its function to review the interpretation of facts and national law made by domestic authorities, unless the decisions are manifestly absurd or unreasonable.

18.Independent, impartial and informed judicial bodies are crucial to ensuring that the facts and legal qualifications of individual cases are assessed consistently with international standards of human rights. Judicial infrastructures should be complemented in this respect by national human rights institutions in accordance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (Paris Principles).

19.Article 4 requires that measures to eliminate incitement and discrimination must be made with due regard to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights expressly set forth in article 5 of the Convention. The phrase due regard implies that, in the creation and application of offences, as well as fulfilling the other requirements of article 4, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights in article 5 must be given appropriate weight in decision-making processes. The due regard clause has been interpreted by the Committee to apply to human rights and freedoms as a whole, and not simply to freedom of opinion and expression, which should however be borne in mind as the most pertinent reference principle when calibrating the legitimacy of speech restrictions.

20.The Committee observes with concern that broad or vague restrictions on freedom of speech have been used to the detriment of groups protected by the Convention. States parties should formulate restrictions on speech with sufficient precision, according to the standards in the Convention as elaborated in the present recommendation. The Committee stresses that measures to monitor and combat racist speech should not be used as a pretext to curtail expressions of protest at injustice, social discontent or opposition.

21.The Committee underlines that article 4 (b) requires that racist organizations which promote and incite racial discrimination be declared illegal and prohibited. The Committee understands that the reference to “organized…propaganda activities” implicates improvised forms of organization or networks, and that “all other propaganda activities” may be taken to refer to unorganized or spontaneous promotion and incitement of racial discrimination.

22.Under the terms of article 4 (c) regarding public authorities or public institutions, racist expressions emanating from such authorities or institutions are regarded by the Committee as of particular concern, especially statements attributed to high-ranking officials. Without prejudice to the application of the offences in subparagraphs (a) and (b) of article 4, which apply to public officials as well as to all others, the “immediate and positive measures” referred to in the chapeau may additionally include measures of a disciplinary nature, such as removal from office, where appropriate, as well as effective remedies for victims.

23.As part of its standard practice, the Committee recommends that States parties which have made reservations to the Convention withdraw them. In cases where a reservation affecting Convention provisions on racist speech is maintained, States parties are invited to provide information as to why such a reservation is considered necessary, the nature and scope of the reservation, its precise effects in terms of national law and policy, and any plans to limit or withdraw the reservation within a specified time frame.

Article 5

24.Article 5 of the Convention enshrines the obligation of States parties to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

25.The Committee considers that the expression of ideas and opinions made in the context of academic debates, political engagement or similar activity, and without incitement to hatred, contempt, violence or discrimination, should be regarded as legitimate exercises of the right to freedom of expression, even when such ideas are controversial.

26.In addition to its inclusion in article 5, freedom of opinion and expression is recognized as a fundamental right in a broad range of international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirm that everyone has the right to hold opinions and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds through any media and regardless of frontiers. The right to freedom of expression is not unlimited but carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but only if they are provided by law and are necessary for protection of the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals. Freedom of expression should not aim at the destruction of the rights and freedoms of others, including the right to equality and non-discrimination.

27.The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference affirm the positive role of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in combating racial hatred.

28.In addition to underpinning and safeguarding the exercise of other rights and freedoms, freedom of opinion and expression has particular salience in the context of the Convention. The protection of persons from racist hate speech is not simply one of opposition between the right to freedom of expression and its restriction for the benefit of protected groups; the persons and groups entitled to the protection of the Convention also enjoy the right to freedom of expression and freedom from racial discrimination in the exercise of that right. Racist hate speech potentially silences the free speech of its victims.

29.Freedom of expression, indispensable for the articulation of human rights and the dissemination of knowledge regarding the state of enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, assists vulnerable groups in redressing the balance of power among the components of society, promotes intercultural understanding and tolerance, assists in the deconstruction of racial stereotypes, facilitates the free exchange of ideas, and offers alternative views and counterpoints. States parties should adopt policies empowering all groups within the purview of the Convention to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Article 7

30.Whereas the provisions of article 4 on dissemination of ideas attempt to discourage the flow of racist ideas upstream, and the provisions on incitement address their downstream effects, article 7 addresses the root causes of hate speech, and represents a further illustration of the “appropriate means” to eliminate racial discrimination envisaged in article 2, paragraph 1 (d). The importance of article 7 has not diminished over time: its broadly educational approach to eliminating racial discrimination is an indispensable complement to other approaches to combating racial discrimination. Because racism can be the product of, inter alia, indoctrination or inadequate education, especially effective antidotes to racist hate speech include education for tolerance, and counter-speech.

31.Under article 7, States parties undertake to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnic groups, as well as to propagating universal human rights principles, including those of the Convention. Article 7 is phrased in the same mandatory language as other articles in the Convention, and the fields of activity — “teaching, education, culture and information” — are not expressed as exhaustive of the undertakings required.

32.The school systems in States parties represent an important focus for the dissemination of human rights information and perspectives. School curricula, textbooks and teaching materials should be informed by and address human rights themes and seek to promote mutual respect and tolerance among nations and racial and ethnic groups.

33.Appropriate educational strategies in line with the requirements of article 7 include intercultural education, including intercultural bilingual education, based on equality of respect and esteem and genuine mutuality, supported by adequate human and financial resources. Programmes of intercultural education should represent a genuine balance of interests and should not function in intention or effect as vehicles of cultural assimilation.

34.Measures should be adopted in the field of education aimed at encouraging knowledge of the history, culture and traditions of “racial or ethnical” groups present in the State party, including indigenous peoples and persons of African descent. Educational materials should, in the interests of promoting mutual respect and understanding, endeavour to highlight the contribution of all groups to the social, economic and cultural enrichment of the national identity and to national, economic and social progress.

35.In order to promote inter-ethnic understanding, balanced and objective representations of history are essential, and, where atrocities have been committed against groups of the population, days of remembrance and other public events should be held, where appropriate in context, to recall such human tragedies, as well as celebrations of successful resolution of conflicts. Truth and reconciliation commissions can also play a vital role in countering the persistence of racial hatred and facilitating the development of a climate of inter-ethnic tolerance.

36.Information campaigns and educational policies calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech should engage the general public; civil society, including religious and community associations; parliamentarians and other politicians; educational professionals; public administration personnel; police and other bodies dealing with public order; and legal personnel, including the judiciary. The Committee draws the attention of States parties to general recommendation No. 13 (1993) on the training of law enforcement officials in the protection of human rights and to general recommendation No. 31 (2005) on the prevention of racial discrimination in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice system. In these and other cases, familiarization with international norms protecting freedom of opinion and expression and norms protecting against racist hate speech is essential.

37.Formal rejection of hate speech by high-level public officials and condemnation of the hateful ideas expressed play an important role in promoting a culture of tolerance and respect. The promotion of intercultural dialogue through a culture of public discourse and institutional instruments of dialogue, and the promotion of equal opportunities in all aspects of society are of equal value to educational methodologies and should be encouraged in a vigorous manner.

38.The Committee recommends that educational, cultural and informational strategies to combat racist hate speech should be underpinned by systematic data collection and analysis in order to assess the circumstances under which hate speech emerges, the audiences reached or targeted, the means by which they are reached, and media responses to hate messages. International cooperation in this area helps to increase not only the possibilities of comparability of data but also knowledge of and the means to combat hate speech that transcends national boundaries.

39.Informed, ethical and objective media, including social media and the Internet, have an essential role in promoting responsibility in the dissemination of ideas and opinions. In addition to putting in place appropriate legislation for the media in line with international standards, States parties should encourage the public and private media to adopt codes of professional ethics and press codes that incorporate respect for the principles of the Convention and other fundamental human rights standards.

40.Media representations of ethnic, indigenous and other groups within the purview of article 1 of the Convention should be based on principles of respect, fairness and the avoidance of stereotyping. Media should avoid referring unnecessarily to race, ethnicity, religion and other group characteristics in a manner that may promote intolerance.

41.The principles of the Convention are served by encouraging media pluralism, including facilitation of access to and ownership of media by minority, indigenous and other groups in the purview of the Convention, including media in their own languages. Local empowerment through media pluralism facilitates the emergence of speech capable of countering racist hate speech.

42.The Committee encourages self-regulation and compliance with codes of ethics by Internet service providers, as underlined in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

43.The Committee encourages States parties to work with sports associations to eradicate racism in all sporting disciplines.

44.With particular reference to the Convention, States parties should disseminate knowledge of its standards and procedures, and provide associated training, particularly for those concerned with its implementation, including civil servants, the judiciary and law enforcement officials. The concluding observations of the Committee should be made widely available in the official and other commonly used languages at the conclusion of the examination of the report of the State party; opinions of the Committee under the article 14 communications procedure should similarly be made available.


45.The relationship between proscription of racist hate speech and the flourishing of freedom of expression should be seen as complementary and not the expression of a zero sum game where the priority given to one necessitates the diminution of the other. The rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, and the right to freedom of expression, should be fully reflected in law, policy and practice as mutually supportive human rights.

46.The prevalence of racist hate speech in all regions of the world continues to represent a significant contemporary challenge for human rights. The faithful implementation of the Convention as a whole, integrated into wider global efforts to counter hate speech phenomena, represents the best hope of translating the vision of a society free from intolerance and hatred into a living reality and promoting a culture of respect for universal human rights.

47.The Committee regards the adoption by States parties of targets and monitoring procedures to support laws and policies combating racist hate speech to be of the utmost importance. States parties are urged to include measures against racist hate speech in national plans of action against racism, integration strategies and national human rights plans and programmes.