Innocent figures: why we need more facts - Address at conference on Right-wing Extremism and Hate Crime

Speech given by Morten Kjaerum at conference on Right-wing Extremism and Hate Crime: Minorities under Pressure in Europe and Beyond 14 May, 2013 in Oslo.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today’s conference is one more piece of evidence that hate crime is moving up the European agenda. And indeed, the prevalence of the phenomenon in much, if not all, of Europe, makes it increasingly important to develop targeted policies that combat crimes motivated by bias. But in reality, we often know very little about the magnitude of the problem in individual countries, about who is committing these crimes and about who is being victimised.

I would therefore like to begin my remarks to you today by talking about numbers. Three different kinds of numbers: because this is not simply a list of percentages. The lack of these figures mean that we may be making it more difficult to find lasting and effective solutions to the phenomenon of hate crime, crimes that too often remain unrecognised, unprosecuted and therefore invisible. We thereby de facto create a situation of impunity that can only benefit extremists and their ideology.

Number 1:

Despite action taken at Member State level to counter hate crime, there remains a lack of confidence among victims that the authorities are able – or willing – to afford them the protection they need. This often makes them reluctant to report hate crimes to any institution or organisation. The findings of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights show this quite clearly:

  • In a survey of 93,000 LGBT people in the EU and Croatia that FRA will be publishing this Friday, eight out of 10 victims of crimes motivated by bias or prejudice did not report them to the police.
  • Three quarters of the Jewish respondents to a FRA survey who said they had been victims of anti-Semitic harassment did not report this to the police or any other organisation. We will be presenting the full report in October this year.
  • Between 75% and 90% of incidents of serious harassment suffered by members of ethnic minority or migrant groups in the EU were not reported to the police, a FRA survey of 23,000 people with a minority background found.

The reasons given by Jews, Roma, LGBT or people of African origin for not reporting their experiences included that nothing would change as a result of reporting incidents; that such offences were everyday occurrences; and that they did not trust the police. Leaving aside the question of whether this mistrust is justified or not, these figures present a devastating picture of people’s confidence in the law enforcement authorities, an issue we need to address.

I must add that when we carry out surveys across 27 Member States, we do see differences and gradations. And we see that in some Member States there is a higher level of trust. So let’s look at these countries, at what works and what doesn’t work, let’s ask “how did you build up a higher level of trust with minorities than in other countries?” And that will give us valuable material to work on.

Now let me return to

Number 2:

The gaps we currently observe between the number of hate crimes published in various annual national reports and the reality on the ground are by no means only due to unforthcoming victims.

One of the major difficulties preventing us from establishing the true extent of anti-Semitic or any other form of hate crime is that at present, only four EU Member States collect comprehensive data on hate crime. In addition, differences of classification in national crime statistics mean that it is often impossible to make comparisons between different countries, making it hard to reliably assess the extent to which hate crime is rising or falling and thus develop targeted policy measures.

I would like here to show you a slide that categorises EU states according to the scope and extensiveness of their hate-crime data.

SLIDES - see page 1 (pdf)

Just a couple of words of explanation: ‘comprehensive’ data in this context means that a broad range of bias motivations are included in the figures, as well as a variety of crime categories (such as assault, threat, and harassment), and that the data is made public. I must also point out here that countries with higher hate crime figures do not necessarily have the highest rates of hate crime, but simply record the incidence of such offences more efficiently and are more transparent with the figures they have.
This is important to bear in mind when looking at my second slide, which shows how few EU countries are collecting data in many categories of bias-motivated crime. As you see, while 25 member states collect figures on racist or xenophobic hate crimes, only four countries compile data on crimes that target Roma or people with disabilities.

SLIDES - see page 2 (pdf)

And now I come to my final figure, namely

Number 3:

To give you a better idea of the scale of bias-motivated crime in the EU, I would like here to give you just a few examples. Research carried out by FRA shows clearly that hate crime is an important problem. Particularly in the wake of the EU’s economic crisis, violent extremism has been on the rise, especially in those countries that have been forced to make the biggest cuts in state spending.

The agency has found:

  • Up to 32% of Roma in FRA’s survey of ethnic minority and immigrant groups throughout the EU were victims of assault, threat or serious harassment with a perceived racist motive in the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • 26% of the LGBT people FRA surveyed in the EU and Croatia experienced violence in the five years preceding the survey, with the figure rising to 35% for transgender people.
  • FRA found that 26% of the Jewish people it surveyed last year in nine EU Member States had experienced some form of harassment in the 12 months preceding the survey. Among the most widespread forms of harassment were offensive comments posted on the internet and being at the receiving end of offensive or threatening e-mails, text messages or letters, a fact which may be of interest to our further discussion on the role of media in both inciting and combating hate crime.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have given you plenty of figures to look at, and explained why I think they are so important. However, no discussion of hate crime should stop at the numbers. Because hate crime is a phenomenon that affects real people, and these people must remain at the centre of our attention. Indeed, far more people are affected than is often understood or expected.

For hate crime transcends the experiences of the individuals directly involved. Homophobic, racist and other crimes motivated by prejudice create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that does great damage on a far larger scale. This is the case because hate crimes harm not only the victim, but also other people (perceived as) belonging to the same group – husbands, wives, daughters, friends, neighbours – many of whom are terrified that they will become the next target, and, more broadly, society as a whole.

And the damage doesn’t stop there. Such crimes also ‘speak’ to people who sympathise with the offender and whose biased attitudes the offender confirms and reinforces. They say “don’t think you’re wanted here, because you’re not. And don’t think you’re safe, because we’ve already shown you’re not – and it could happen again. Be scared.” A case in point: in three out of the nine EU countries included in the Agency’s antisemitism survey, 40% or more of the respondents said they had considered emigrating because they didn’t feel safe as Jews.

This brings me to a point that needs to be made about the perpetrators of hate crime. Contrary to popular belief, there is ample evidence to suggest that offenders are not all or even often members of an extremist organisation, but are drawn from a wide social spectrum. In FRA’s survey of ethnic and religious minorities, only 13% of Turkish victims and 12% of Roma victims of assault or threat, for example, identified perpetrators as members of right-wing extremist groups. 

The broad spectrum from which perpetrators are drawn make clear the limits in linking data collection and practical police work on hate crime to extremism, as this is only a small section of a much bigger picture:

The link made between extremist groups and bias-motivated offences tends to lead to an over-emphasis on a political trend that loses sight of individual victims and how to better protect them, which is after all the ultimate aim of all policy directed at combating hate crime. Thus giving the intelligence services sole responsibility for hate crime is too limited. The regular police force needs to be involved to a greater extent and be given a broader mandate to protect individuals from hate attacks.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To combat hate crime and its associated fundamental rights violations, it is crucial for all the public figures involved – from policymakers, through judges, to police officers – to state unambiguously that bias and bias-related crimes are unacceptable and that offenders will be brought to justice.

European governments need to

1) make hate crimes more visible and
2) hold perpetrators accountable.

We should not forget in this regard that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled a number of times that states are obliged to ‘unmask’ the bias motivation behind racist crimes or those committed because of a victim’s religious belief.

It is also absolutely necessary that courts hand down enhanced penalties for crimes with a bias motivation, making clear at the same time why they are doing so. In order to capture the broad range of types of hate crime, the EU’s Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia allows for the adoption of one of two methods. The first is to introduce enhanced penalties, either for all crimes or for those regarded as most relevant or serious, such as murder, injury, insult or vandalism. A small group of EU Member States have opted for this approach. A much larger group decided instead to make racist and xenophobic motivation an aggravating circumstance, sometimes in addition to qualified criminal law definitions.

However, it must be remembered that the obligation to unmask bias motivation is unconditional. Countries whose legislation leaves it to individual judges to decide on whether to take the bias motivation underlying the aggravating circumstance into account fall short of meeting their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

To conclude:

There are many challenges ahead of us as we seek to combat hate crime and the harm that it causes. Increasing rates of reporting and recording is indispensable, but it is only the beginning.

We must be clear that hate crime is not just a phenomenon that affects a few individuals marginal to society, but on the contrary a direct attack on the democratic principle of equality and the assumption that each person in a democratic society can live without fear of violence and discrimination.

Thank you for your attention.