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UN Experts Issue Powerful Warning over Free Speech Just Days After Scots Hate Crime Bill Passes

Religious Liberty
24 March 2021

United Nations human rights experts have issued a powerful new statement voicing concern about the erosion of free speech.

This comes just days after the Scottish Government – backed by a majority of MSPs – passed Scotland’s controversial Hate Crime Bill, which, as many critics pointed out, has significant potential to restrict legitimate freedom of expression.

The statement includes reference to nations restricting free speech as a means of addressing hate speech and goes on to warn that ‘any limitation of speech must remain an exception…’.

States should ‘operationalise the Rabat threshold test’, which, according to the UN’s experts, ‘sets the right balance between protecting freedom of expression and prohibiting incitement to hatred’.

The Rabat threshold test follows a case-by-case assessment of a variety of factors rather than a blanket ban approach.

Some of the key extracts from the statement:

"On the 10th anniversary of Resolution 16/18, we welcome the Human Rights Council consensus around the issue of fostering freedom of religion or belief, reaffirming freedom of opinion and expression and combating advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

“Sadly, a new wave of stigma, racism, xenophobia and hate has been amplified by digitalisation, social networks, and aggravated in the context of the pandemic, targeting minorities and those seen as 'others' with impunity. At the same time, the policing of opinions and expressions online, the targeting of certain religious communities for reasons of national security, the use of counter-terrorism or public order laws to suppress legitimate expression have reinforced negative stereotypes and may contribute to incidents of intolerance, discrimination and violence against persons based on their religion, belief or opinions in any region of the world.

“Many States have resorted to restricting free speech as a way to addressing hate speech but any limitation of speech must remain an exception and strictly follow international human rights standards.”

CARE for Scotland Parliamentary Officer, Michael Veitch, said:

“We remain deeply concerned that the provisions of the Scottish Government’s flawed Hate Crime Bill will be used to restrict free speech in a range of contexts.

“This sober warning from UN experts is a reminder that hard won rights of freedom of religion, belief and opinion are not to be jettisoned by the pursuit of hate crime measures that restrict or undermine freedom of expression.

“By passing the Hate Crime Bill, Holyrood has now made Scotland the strictest regulator of free speech in the UK, whereas the tradition in Scotland has always been to interpret the right to free speech generously and err on the side of caution.

“Thanks to the Bill, the Scottish Government, normally keen to align itself with the UN, is clearly out of step with these experts.

“We would urge the Scottish Government, as it oversees the implementation of its’ new legislation, to carefully study the opinion of this UN panel of experts, and so ensure that Scotland in no way relinquishes its’ historic reputation as a bastion of liberty.”


Notes to editors:

For interview requests or more information please contact James Mildred: // 07717516814

CARE is a well-established mainstream Christian charity providing resources and helping to bring Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy and practical caring initiatives. CARE is represented in the UK Parliaments and Assemblies.

Link to full statement:

The UN experts are: Mr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Ms. Irene Khan , Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule , Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and of association; and Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

Rabat threshold test requires a case-by-case assessment, rather than a blanket ban, of "(1) the social and political context, (2) status of the speaker, (3) intent to incite the audience against a target group, (4) content and form of the speech, (5) extent of its dissemination and (6) likelihood of harm, including imminence."

The Scottish Gov says it is ‘working to fulfil our international obligations and contribute via the United Nations and Council of Europe.’ -

CARE for Scotland’s statement following the hate crime bill Stage 3 vote:

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