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NIHRC requests UN guidance on hate speech and freedom of expression

30 May 2014

When is a statement protected by the right to freedom of expression and when does it cross the line to be hate speech? This question has been debated across Northern Ireland in the past week.

Human rights law identifies key rights for speech and religion. The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19, protects freedom of expression. However it is followed by Article 20, which requires racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence to be prohibited by law.

Both the right to religious freedom and freedom of expression have caveats with references to necessary limitations to protect the rights reputations and freedoms of others.

However these balances, so easily expressed in a legal document, present real challenges on the ground – as we saw this week in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has considered the public statements which began with the remarks of the Pastor in his sermon. We have noted the investigation by the PSNI. In this we are very conscious of the higher burden of proof which is applied in our own domestic law to incitement to religious hatred cases compared with incitement to racial hatred.

NIHRC Interim Chair, Mr John Corey, said:

“We were deeply concerned at the impact which the statements in the sermon and subsequent public comments would have upon minority communities in Northern Ireland, particularly the Muslim community. This was a heightened concern given our understanding of the backdrop of mounting attacks on minority groups in Northern Ireland and the growing level of fear.”

The Commission has referred to the direction given by the UN Human Rights Committee to the UK government in 2008, when it said that government must

“…take energetic measures to combat and eliminate negative public attitudes towards Muslims

and more particularly,

“…ensure that the fight against terrorism does not lead to raising suspicion against all Muslims”.

Although there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech, in considering article 10 rights on freedom of expression at a regional level the European Court of Human Rights has established certain parameters – such as whether the content of what was said essentially negates other rights. In a 2009 case involving anti-Islamic comment in an election campaign in Belgium the court held that the speech did constitute incitement to racial hatred because of what was called the “heightened resonance” of the election context.

Given the seriousness of the situation, including the involvement of Government, and in order to provide assistance moving forward, the Commission has written to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination seeking guidance. We will provide this guidance to Government upon receipt.


Further information:

For further information please contact Alice Neeson on: or 0771 7731873 (mobile).

Notes to editors

1. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory body first proposed in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998) and established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It is answerable to Parliament at Westminster.

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