“The Hate Factor in Political Speech. Where do responsibilities lie?”

Warsaw , 

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Dear Minister Boni,
Dear Ambassador Schulerud,
Distinguished guests,
Szanowni Państwo,

I would like to start by thanking our host, Minister Boni, and his Ministry for helping us organise this conference in partnership with the EEA and Norway Grants.

It is a pleasure to be back in Warsaw. I was here almost exactly two years ago to mark the 20th anniversary of Poland's accession to the Council of Europe.

In my speech back then I pointed out how impressed I was with Poland's evolution from dictatorship to democracy.

Dear friends,

This is an important conference on a very important subject.

Tackling hatred in political speech is a complex and multidimensional task.

I am therefore heartened to have with us today parliamentarians and journalists, but also civil society representatives and distinguished academics.

We are all in the same boat.

We are here because time and again history has sadly shown that hate speech leads not only to divisions within society, but also to mass atrocities.

Poles know this better than most. You have experienced your share of hate.

Just as in Norway two years ago, the consequences of hate speech were made tragically clear when seventy-seven innocent people, most of them still in their teens, were gunned down by an extremist.

Why? Because they believed in a Norway proud of its diversity. An open Norway defined by tolerance and peace.

We must ensure that this never ever happens again.

Hate speech, even without a clear call to violence, means exclusion.

It means stigmatization.

It means discrimination and even dehumanization, often of vulnerable groups in society.

Hate speech threatens democratic stability. It uproots our fundamental values laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights, the bedrock of the Council of Europe.

I therefore urge all political leaders to stand up and speak out loudly against those who use or pave the way for hate speech in political discourse.

Dear friends,

Freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, goes hand in hand with the demands of a democratic society. It is a necessary condition for the enjoyment of our democratic ideals, providing space for public discussion and debate.

The European Court of Human Rights points out that freedom of expression is also applicable to ideas that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population because such are the demands of pluralism.

The rights of individuals to share their views freely – this right is universal.

It makes no difference whether it is exercised on a podium, in a public square or a Facebook profile.

However, this freedom of expression cannot be unlimited, even when statements are part of a public or political debate.

The Erbakan v. Turkey judgment of the Court, adopted in 2006, embodies the essence of the European Court's position in that regard.


It states that "tolerance and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings constitute the foundations of a democratic, pluralistic society. That being so, as a matter of principle it may be considered necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance."

This shows that, in some cases, restriction to freedom of expression is deemed necessary.

Let's take the case of Norwood v. UK in 2004.

The applicant displayed on his window a poster supplied by the British National Party, of which he was a member, representing the Twin Towers in flames with the words "Islam out of Britain – Protect the British People." As a result, he was convicted by British courts of aggravated hostility towards a religious group. He then argued before the Strasbourg Court that his right to freedom of expression had been breached.

The Court declared the application inadmissible. It held that this was an attack on all Muslims in the UK which was incompatible with the values guaranteed by the Convention, notably tolerance, social peace and non-discrimination.

Of course, many cases are not clear cut. Context is always important. That is the reason why the Court is always very careful to make a distinction between genuine and serious incitement to hatred and the right of individuals to express their views freely.

In fact, the protection of freedom of expression and the fight against hate speech are two mutually reinforcing objectives.

Dear friends,

Sadly, across Europe today discrimination and intolerance are still widespread.

Minorities such as Muslims and Roma are being marginalised and stigmatised.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Debate on integration and immigration has become increasingly polarized. Extremists – in all camps – are feeding off each other.

So where do responsibilities lie? The short answer is: everywhere.

Combating hate speech is not just about passing laws and imposing sanctions.

It is about capacity building.

It is about raising awareness.

It is, above all, about speaking up.

Polish history is a painful reminder of the terrible price inflicted by the world's silence.

Indifference allows for political gain from hatred in political speech.

Indifference to hate speech is moral suicide.

Indifference cannot – and must not – be an option.

A common front against hate speech will isolate those who introduce hatred into political speech.

And it will strengthen those who challenge it.

We must all be held accountable for what we do, but also what we say.

This applies to kindergarten teachers and journalists but, above all, to politicians whose words often have a greater impact.

Distinguished guests,

We are here in Warsaw to start a discussion, but also to generate long term action.

Let me underline three points.

1) Without a doubt, the internet and new technologies have been a force for good.  Access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable.
It generates new ideas.

It inspires creativity and encourages entrepreneurship: the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become.

But we need to fine-tune our technological progress with the principles and ideals that we hold most dearly.

Our lawmakers and judges need to keep this under constant review.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have an enormous potential for dissemination.

We must do everything in our power to make sure that these precious 21st Century tools are not hijacked by those who wish to do ill.

The Council of Europe's campaign on combating Hate Speech Online shows our readiness to act online and to claim the internet as a space for citizenship and participation for young people.

I also believe that we must tackle the issue of anonymous hate speech. We cannot allow a situation where those who propagate hate speech are able to separate their online actions from their real world identities.

2) The media also has a big responsibility in fighting against hate speech.

The media community should develop a system of effective self-regulation based on an agreed code of ethics and a mechanism to receive and respond to complaints.

3) Finally, I believe that, in order for us to win the battle against hate speech, political leaders must assume greater responsibility.

Those public figures who spread rhetoric should know that it will come at a very high political price.

In this respect, I am convinced that European leaders – including our colleagues here in Warsaw – have a very important role to play.

Europe's political message must therefore be crystal clear: if Europe wants to remain a region of peace and prosperity then it is time for us to adapt our mindset, our mentality, and take value in the advantages that we can draw from our diversity.

Dear friends,

Over the years our continent has moved from destruction and mass suffering to peace and Solidarity – solidarity with a big and a small ‘S'.

We have managed to do so because of the values we believe in and stay true to.

These values have underpinned our societies so that individuals are considered as equals regardless of their differences.

It is these values which tell us that there is no space for hate speech in our society.

It is our joint responsibility, as academics, law makers and public figures but above all as democratic citizens, to make hate speech a relic of the past.

Thank you.