Some people think that hate crime is no longer an issue in Europe. Others think that the issue is no longer a serious one, as it only affects a few marginal groups. This is a mistake. You may not have heard of the Roma man who was threatened with an ax in front of his 2-year-old daughter, or the Jewish man who was fired at with an air rifle as he left a Torah class. This still happens in Europe, today. So hate crimes – crimes motivated by prejudice – are a reality, and they need to be recognized and decisively confronted.
Much greater political will is needed to combat the phenomenon lastingly and effectively. Governments must send a clear message that there is zero tolerance for hate crime by taking concrete steps to counter prejudice and discrimination. They must make hate crime more visible, both by recording it efficiently and by drawing public attention to it, and by making perpetrators accountable, through penalties that underscore the severity of the crimes.
Such crimes – motivated by racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, or by bias against disability or sexual orientation – strike at the heart of our diverse and democratic societies. And over the last few years, we have witnessed continued and repeated violations of people’s human rights through verbal abuse, physical attacks and even murder motivated by prejudice.
These are not like other forms of crime. Hate crimes foster and reinforce social divides. They don't just harm individuals, they also undermine the security of entire communities and, ultimately, society as a whole. The crimes themselves are often coupled with indifference by decision makers. They also reinforce their sense of alienation from mainstream society. And beyond physical harm, hate crimes have a lasting emotional impact on victims and their families, who often experience an overwhelming sense of humiliation and powerlessness.
Hate crime offenders send a clear message that some of us are lesser human beings, lesser citizens who can be harmed with impunity. Their actions are, therefore, serious affronts to the fundamental right to human dignity and equal treatment. Moreover, hate crimes are not just committed by political extremists, as many assume: Offenders come from all walks of life. Despite the progress we have achieved in promoting democracy and human rights, prejudice and bias against those with a different skin color or religion, or with disabilities – to name but a few – are still widespread and regularly spill over into violence against the most vulnerable of our citizens.
There are also a number of external factors that can exacerbate the incidence and seriousness of hate attacks. A case in point is the current economic crisis: In the countries that have been hit hardest, there seems to be an alarming escalation in bias-motivated crime against migrants and other groups. And history has taught us bitter lessons about the consequences of not being vigilant against such crimes; the search for scapegoats in the 1930s that preceded and then accompanied the rise of extremism is still very much fresh in Europe’s collective memory.
The work of human rights bodies such as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is doing much to highlight the problem of hate crime and the challenges inherent in battling the phenomenon. This includes FRA’s publication of figures on the minority and ethnic groups most likely to be targets of hate crime in the EU, and ODIHR’s annual publication of data on hate crimes in the OSCE region. ODIHR also helps NGOs to monitor and report hate crimes, and has provided training for law enforcement agencies to improve investigation and prosecution rates.
Both organizations continue to identify crucial gaps in national data collection techniques. In addition, many victims find it difficult to seek full redress, as the courts frequently do not acknowledge the bias and prejudice at the root of hate crimes because of shortcomings in legislation.
Other victims are unwilling to seek redress because they do not trust law enforcement authorities or the criminal justice system. Weaknesses in the way hate crimes are recorded or investigated by the police create further barriers. FRA’s research has revealed that among some minority groups, up to 90 percent of those who were victims of hate crime did not report it to the police. This is a figure that should give governments throughout the EU pause for thought.
If we do not do more to record, investigate and prosecute hate crimes, and if we do not ensure that victims have access to remedy and compensation for their suffering, we could seriously jeopardize social cohesion and security. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, this is something we can ill afford. Let us therefore work together to combat hate crime for what it is – an injustice based on ignorance and prejudice that has no place in Europe today.
* Morten Kjaerum is director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Ambassador Janez Lenarcic is director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.