Europe: A Continental Fight Against Hatred
Nations must take a harder line in combating crimes against ethnic and sexual minorities.
STRASBOURG, France | Hate crimes are a daily reality all over the European continent. Credible recent reports show that people suffer violence because they are black, Jewish, Roma, or Muslim, or because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They give examples of how individuals have been physically attacked in the street or had their windows broken or homes put on fire. Government authorities have a responsibility to put an end to these shameful and serious crimes.
Both the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the non-governmental Human Rights First have published surveys on violent acts motivated by intolerance and hatred. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance presents facts and analysis about such crimes in its country reports and recommendations on how to counter them. All these documents demonstrate the danger of allowing prejudices against others to take root and spread. Unfortunately, the step from hate speech to hate crime is easily made.
One country where several incidents have been reported is Ukraine. Last year a Nigerian medical student, George Itoro Ebong, was smashed over the head with a bottle while waiting for a bus in Kyiv. To the bleeding victim the three attackers shouted, “Go back to Africa; you are a monkey!” This was not a unique case; there have been a number of other racist crimes in Ukraine in recent years, some with fatal outcomes.
In my assessment report on the human rights situation in Ukraine I referred to such racist attacks, to violence against Roma people, and to a worrying trend of active anti-Semitic movements. Racist criminals were usually arrested when found but often rapidly released by the police, who were reported to have taken bribes. In other cases, the attacks were judged not to be xenophobic, but the criminal actions of hooligans, and therefore given a more lenient response.
Similar violent hate crimes can be observed in a number of other countries. In the Russian Federation, extreme right-wing groups have committed a series of hate crimes, in some cases even murders, against members of ethnic, religious, and national minorities. In recent years, people from the Caucasus, not least Chechens, have been targeted as well. The law is clear and sees such racist and anti-Semitic motives as an aggravating factor, but this is not always borne out in the trials. Though the government has spoken out against racist and anti-Semitic violence, the problem remains.
In Italy there have been serious violent actions against Roma people during the past year, including physical attacks and arson, following prejudiced speeches by some politicians and xenophobic reporting in some media outlets. The whole Roma community has been made a scapegoat for crimes committed by a very few, and politicians have demonstrated little moral leadership in trying to stem this wave of anti-Gypsyism.
A mixture of Islamophobia and racism is also directed against immigrant Muslims or their children. This tendency has increased considerably after 9/11 and government responses to such terrorist crimes. Muslims have been physically attacked and mosques vandalized or burnt in a number of countries. In the United Kingdom no less than 11 mosques were attacked after the London terrorist bombings on 7 July 2005, and in France five mosques were attacked with explosives or put alight in 2006.
Gay pride events have been attacked in several European cities, including Bucharest, Budapest, and Moscow. In Riga, extremists hurled feces and eggs at gay activists and their supporters when they were seen leaving a church service. Some years ago a Swedish hockey player was stabbed to death in Vasteras after he had made known that he was homosexual. In Oporto, Portugal, a group of boys attacked and killed a homeless Brazilian transgender woman and left the body in a water-filled pit. These incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.
Some of these assaults may have been committed by disturbed individual minds but many of them bear the imprints of neo-Nazi groups or other organized, extremist gangs who tend to be at the same time racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and homophobic. They may also target foreigners and people with disabilities.
The seriousness of such crimes and the duty of governments to take action to stop them have also been underlined by the Court of Human Rights. In one 2005 judgment, Nachova and others vs. Bulgaria, it underlined the importance of effective investigation in cases of racially motivated violence:
“Racial violence is a particular affront to human dignity and, in view of its perilous consequences, requires from the authorities special vigilance and a vigorous reaction. It is for this reason that the authorities must use all available means to combat racism and racist violence, thereby reinforcing democracy’s vision of a society in which diversity is perceived not as a threat but as a source of enrichment.”
In the same judgment the court also stressed the duty of governments to take all reasonable steps to unmask any racist motive and to establish whether or not ethnic hatred or prejudice may have played a role in the events.
So what ought to be done in concrete terms to prevent and respond to cases of hate crime?
• Anti-discrimination bodies should be established with a broad mandate and the authority to address hate violence through monitoring, reporting, and assistance to victims.
• Governments should establish cooperative relations with minority communities themselves and invite proposals on measures to be taken to prevent and act upon concrete hate incidents. Such measures will build confidence within the community and reassure citizens that reports of hate crimes are taken seriously.
• Steps should be taken to ensure that bias-motivated crimes are monitored and that data are collected on them and their circumstances. Unfortunately, there is an information gap in several countries due to lack of sufficient official determination. The European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia – the forerunner to the Fundamental Rights Agency – reported in 2006 that among the EU countries only Finland and the United Kingdom had data collection systems on racist crime that could be considered “comprehensive.” In 2007 the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance issued practical guidelines to assist member states in monitoring and effectively investigating these types of crimes.
• Access to complaints procedures needs to be improved for both individual victims and defense groups. Extra efforts are needed in this area as it is likely that quite a number of assaults will otherwise go unreported because of fear and reluctance among the victims themselves.
• The judicial response to hate crimes must be severe. The bias motivation is indeed seen as an aggravating factor enhancing the penalty in several countries. In some others the legal approach is to define hate crimes as distinct crimes requiring strict sentences. However, there are still member states of the Council of Europe that have no provision to enhance penalties on hate crimes. In some others the definition of the bias is limited to only some victim groups. For example, violence against people because of their sexual orientation or disability is not included in the hate crime legislation in several countries.
• Existing hate crime laws must be promptly enforced in order to increase their deterrent effect. The procedures should be well documented and made public.
On top of these concrete steps there is a need to invest more energy into prevention – to inform and educate in order to address the ignorance and fear that often is behind xenophobia and intolerance. The Strasbourg Court has also highlighted the responsibility of teachers in the promotion of a society of tolerance.
This is an area in which the Council of Europe has produced excellent teaching material, for instance in its campaigns “All Equal – All Different” and “Dosta!” (on meeting the Roma). School curricula in member states should nowadays also include education about other religions and cultures with the aim of countering intolerance. The media also have a responsibility not to become a vehicle for the dissemination of hate speech and the promotion of violence.
However, some politicians undermine such efforts by using their platforms to foster and exploit prejudices, rather than to stand up for human rights and respect for those who are different. Thereby they “legitimize” intolerance, which in turn may spur hate speech and hate crimes. They should be held responsible.
by Thomas Hammarberg 25 August 2008