Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure and a privilege to open this "No Hate Speech" conference today, and there are three reasons for it.
The first reason is that hate speech online is not any different from hate speech offline. Both are a violation of human rights. They are menacing human dignity, dialogue and co-operation in democratic societies. The protection of human rights, on the other hand, is central to the political culture and the values that unite all of us. Human rights are at heart of the work that we are doing here in the Council of Europe, together with our 47 member States.
Hate speech is carried out under the cover of freedom of expression, which is indeed a crucial right in any democracy. Freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, is a pillar of democracy. It is a necessary condition for the enjoyment of our democratic ideals, providing space for public discussion and debate. And there is no reason to suppress ideas that "offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population", as the European Court of Human Rights has pointed out in its landmark judgement — because such are the demands of pluralism.
But hate speech is not free speech. Its consequences are anything but free. Hate speech undermines democracy and leads to hate crimes. I am especially worried by the dimensions of online hate speech and cyberbullying against women and transgender people. The two together form an explosive cocktail that has already claimed too many lives of children and young people. It is time to say "stop!"
Your presence therefore carries a very special meaning to us. Your support, your engagement for human rights and against discrimination in Europe is vital. Legal standards and recommendations are one thing; a clear position of civil society organisations in favour of human rights and democracy is at least equally important. We will never succeed in eradicating hate speech just by sanctioning the perpetrators; we must also mobilise the preventive forces of a vibrant civil society.
This leads me to the second reason.
Hate speech is not a new phenomenon. Almost 50 years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe raised its voice against those "increasingly numerous elements" who "are attempting to incite the public, in particular young people, to racial, national or religious hatred…" And ever since, the various organs of the Council of Europe have called for action and proposed measures against hate speech.
However, intolerance — and its intolerable consequences: discrimination and violence — seem to be regaining ground in Europe.
You are the practitioners; you probably know better than the rest of us that hate speech has taken on truly dramatic proportions, particularly on the Internet. Hand in hand with hate speech on the Internet we are also witnessing how hate speech is encroaching upon mainstream political discourse in a number of member States. This is very worrying and makes urgent action necessary.
The "No Hate Speech" movement is one of the strongest responses of the Council of Europe to hate speech. We will also seek to reinforce the measures to combat hate speech through existing legal mechanisms, for instance in the context of the "Budapest Convention" on combating cybercrime, or through new recommendations or guidelines.
Yet, I must pay tribute to the youth organisations who decided some months ago within the co-management system of the Council of Europe to develop the campaign as one of the high-profile flagship projects.
The campaign is already operational in 36 member States. Like the enormously successful "all different – all equal" youth campaigns against racism and intolerance ten and twenty years ago, the "No Hate Speech" campaign is based on national campaigns and national committees. The Council of Europe can never replace the role of member States in defending and promoting human rights. The success of this campaign will, therefore, be the success of the national campaigns.
And supporting the campaign on the ground is exactly the main role of the conference we are about to open. Each national campaign may use different methods and translate the "No Hate" logo in many languages. Each of you needs to work in a different political environment and with strongly different funding mechanisms. I understand that some of you do not yet have a budget, some are still building their web site, and some are still looking for a campaign committee. In fact some of you may even be hoping to find here someone to tell them where to knock to find information about their campaign. And some of you will probably find out that they will in turn become the door at which other people will knock!
But it seems important that you use these three days to agree on the essentials of campaigning, on ways to cooperate and to support each other.
A propos supporting each other – this is the third reason why I feel privileged to open this conference today.
I strongly appreciate the presence at this conference of representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter. This is not a campaign against the Internet or against social networks. I am convinced that high-level declarations in the member States who sometimes portray social media for instance as "the worst menace to society" were said in the heat of the moment; this is not the view of the Council of Europe, and never has been. But we also expect from the social media responsible behaviour, particularly transparency of rules and policies. We need to make sure that social media do not regard themselves, or are regarded by the general public, as human rights-free zones where human dignity ranks lower than market considerations. It is also in the long-term interest of the industry to make the Internet a safer space for human rights.
I express our sincere thanks to our main partners in this campaign, notably the youth organisations sitting on the Advisory Council and the youth ministries and agencies in the member States, who developed and endorsed the campaign. We are also pleased to have on board the European Youth Forum, a faithful partner in all the campaigns and projects of the Council of Europe with young people.
A special thanks goes to the governments of Finland and of the French Community of Belgium, Armenia and Hungary for their voluntary contributions.
This conference and the preparatory activities last year in Budapest would not have been possible without the strong support of the EEA/Norway Grants. This mechanism also provides financial support to campaign activities in 15 countries, and that is a really vital contribution.
Finally, allow me to thank the Armenian government, which currently holds the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, for giving priority to the combat against racism, discrimination and intolerance. I hope that the incoming Chairs, Austria to be followed by Azerbaijan, will also commit similar support to the campaign and its causes.
And now I wish you a hardworking, fruitful conference.