Welcome speech - Combating hate crime in the EU – Giving victims a face and a voice

Speech by FRA Director at Fundamental Rights Conference, Vilnius 12-13 November 2013.
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FRC 2013 Morten Kjaerum slides

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Commissioner, Ministers, Vice-President of the European Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to welcome you all to this year’s Fundamental Rights Conference. I would particularly like to thank the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the EU for co-hosting the conference, as well as Commissioner Cecilia Malmström for agreeing to give the keynote speech on this very important topic. It is a pleasure also to welcome the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and many other organisations to take part in the discussion, as well as representatives of national governments and parliaments and officials from law enforcement authorities and national administrations. Last but not least, a warm welcome to the very vibrant civil society organisations here today. What I like about this annual conference is precisely the diversity of its participants.

The topic of this year’s conference, hate crime, is particularly timely as the European Union is in the course of reviewing its legislation on combating racism and xenophobia. At the same time, implementation of new legislation on victims’ rights is just picking up speed in the Member States. And for the victims themselves, this conference is more than timely.

The Fundamental Rights Agency has been working on hate crime since its establishment, and in the process has amassed a large pool of data as well as a lot of experience.

I have often been struck by the number of surveys and reports that ask the majority population what they think about minorities. Do they notice them? Do they like them? What would they think about having one as a neighbour?

Such surveys can yield valuable information. But somehow, the target of prejudice, of violence, of hate crime often seems to get lost in this kind of survey. That is why the sub-title of our conference today is ‘Giving victims a face and a voice’, and I am very pleased that a little later, we will be able to welcome representatives of organisations who work directly with victims and who have been victims themselves.

So what is different about FRA’s work in this regard? It is in many ways quite simple: we go out and talk to minorities, to the victims. Not just one or two, but thousands upon thousands of Roma, Muslims, LGBT people, Jews, and many others. For to really combat hate crime, we need to find out what the targeted groups think and experience.

And what have we found out?

One of the most striking results from all our surveys is the fear hate crime causes.

Fear of being seen to belong to a certain group, fear that what has happened once will happen again, and fear that family members and friends will suffer the same victimisation.

A remark by a British judge during a recent study of ours sticks in my mind, and I would like to quote it here: “To the individual concerned, it has always been the most horrendous experience to feel that you are being targeted on the basis of something that you have no control over.”

And that is very much the point: if you are mugged late at night because you are wearing a diamond necklace, you can decide not to wear jewellery next time you go out. But what if you are attacked because of the colour of your skin? Or because you’re in a wheelchair? There’s no decision you can make to change that.

As our surveys show, hate crime and the attendant sense of fear are a recurring problem across different groups:

  • In a survey of ethnic minority and immigrant groups throughout the EU, up to 32% of Roma respondents were victims of assault, threat or serious harassment with a perceived racist motive within the last 12 months
  • 26% of the LGBT people in FRA’s large-scale survey of 93,000 people had been confronted with violence in the last five years
  • In our survey of Jewish communities that we published just last week, 38% often avoid wearing or displaying symbols that might identify them as Jews in public.

One young Romanian gay man told us:
“I feel like I have no real friends. Whenever I try to hint that I might be gay, I lose them. All of them. I live in fear of being alone or harassed.” 

The internet plays a key role in creating this fear.

I don’t need to tell anyone here today of the internet’s immense advantages. But the proliferation of bullying, harassment and expressions of hatred on the internet are causing untold distress, often among the most vulnerable groups in our society.

For example: up to a fifth of respondents in our LGBT survey suffered their last incidence of harassment online. As many as 15% said the most serious incidence of harassment they had met with was on the internet.

A young Jewish woman who had suffered a campaign of hatred on the internet told us: “One of the most difficult forms to control is antisemitism on the internet. Of course, it’s horrible when you see Jewish cemeteries being vandalised, but that just doesn’t have the same public effect. It’s amazing, but people often really believe what they read on the internet.”

There is another aspect to the fear caused by bias-motivated offences that is vital for understanding the specificity of hate crime.

For hate crime does not only affect the victims themselves, but entire communities, who are terrified that because they share a certain feature with the victim, they, too, may be targeted. This is the case even if the victim did not actually belong to the group assumed by the perpetrator, as in the case of the man who was beaten up when he was passing in front of a gay club. One man is beaten; an entire community trembles.

And we have to be aware that as well as having an impact on the individual and on a specific community, hate crime also has an insidious effect on the whole of society. The more minorities and their habits, cultures and religions are talked about negatively, the more these stereotypes will be perceived as real, and we know that also shapes reality. We saw this correlation very recently in the case of the small girl in Greece whom police removed from her adoptive parents on suspicion of abduction. On what grounds? No more than physical dissimilarity and the fact that the parents were Roma.

This hate rapidly becomes socially acceptable. Failure to take action against hate crime is not only a serious challenge to fundamental rights. It also undermines the success of EU and national policies related to social cohesion and economic growth. Hate crime undermines the inclusiveness of our society. It stands in the way of realising the inclusive and sustainable growth that we have set ourselves as a goal in the Europe 2020 strategy. A society where hate crime is pervasive is not a society in which everybody can realise his or her potential. 30% of the Jews in our survey have considered emigrating. This figure speaks a clear language. How can we make labour markets more inclusive, benefit from the freedom of movement by EU citizens, and attract highly skilled migrants, foreign investments and overseas talent? Making people feel safe from bias-motivated crime is also a pre-condition for making our economies more competitive globally.

So what can be done?

Hate crime is a fundamental challenge to the values of the EU and its Member States. To make it go away, we must face the facts. And the first fact is recognition.

FRA has put on the table strong evidence that hate crime is a reality for many communities in the EU – far beyond what is recorded in the official statistics or criminal justice data.

The level of underreporting of hate crime in Europe that our surveys disclose is a clear signal that we are currently failing to instil trust in victims that our systems will protect them from harm and deliver justice.

It my strong hope that with our data, the political invisibility of hate crime and hate as a factor in the lives of communities can no longer be justified or argued away as lacking in evidence. The focus should shift to what we can do about it.

Action is required at four levels: the political level, the institutional level, the social level and the European level.

Action is required by politicians to acknowledge that hate crime will not be tolerated and will be acted upon decisively. Politicians and other opinion makers must take the lead in combating old and easy stereotypes.

Action is required by our institutions, in particular the criminal justice system. The message must get through to the police, for example, to take incidents related to hate more seriously and to be alert to signs of hate against communities. Police officers and any other authorities who come into direct contact with hate crime victims must be trained both to identify crimes with a bias motivation and to be sensitive to the specific needs of victims of such crimes. I will shortly be handing a guide to fundamental-rights based training for police officers to Commissioner Malmström. This is one way in which FRA would like to contribute to combating hate crime.

Perpetrators must be held accountable for their deeds. The European Court of Human Rights has stipulated a number of times that states must ‘unmask’ the bias motivation behind hate crimes. It is indispensable that courts hand down enhanced penalties for such offences, while stating clearly that the bias element of the crime is the reason for the harsher sentence.

But we should not only focus on the institutional level. Action is required at the social level, whether by school teachers, civic leaders, civil society and opinion formers. We should also bridge the divide between different communities who are targets of hate crime – Muslims, Jews or LGBT people for example. Working together, we can explore the common ground that all target groups of hate crime share in order to find solutions.

Finally, action is required by us – the European institutions and bodies. Hate crime has a clear cross-border and transnational dimension. Hate should not be given refuge in any corner of the EU, and for that we need hate crime to be dealt with in a consistent and coherent manner across Europe.  The EU institutions are in a position to take action, provide information, and facilitate transnational networking to counter hate crime.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want to challenge all of us here in this room to think about what we and our organisations can do to combat hate crime. We are not here only to discuss the problems that exist, but to find ways forward.

I am convinced that by the end of our conference tomorrow, we will be in a position to list concrete proposals that will help combat bias-motivated crime more effectively throughout the EU.

Considering the results of our surveys, I would say that we are obliged to make our discussions as concrete and far-reaching as possible. We would like these outcomes to become a reference point for further discussions at the EU and national levels, not only in the context of the review of the Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia, but also for broader policies on combating hate crime.

I wish us all interesting and fruitful discussions here at the Fundamental Rights Conference.

Thank you for your attention.

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