On 27 January 2015 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the day when Soviet troops liberated the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Quite rightly we reflected upon the terrible fact that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Yet there was little mention of the hundreds of thousands of Romani Gypsy and Sinti people that were also murdered by the Nazis during World War II in what has become known as the Porrajmos (the ‘Devouring’).
How were the Nazis able to commit these terrible crimes with impunity? The Nazi propaganda machine played a very significant role by reinforcing age old prejudices. Romani Gypsies and Sinti were made scapegoats, blamed for the ills of society and characterised or stereotyped as anti-social thieves and vagabonds and were dehumanised. The propaganda campaign worked; having been conditioned (by what would now clearly be understood as ‘hate speech’) to believe what they were being told and as a result of this hate speech there was little opposition amongst the settled population when Romani Gypsies and Sinti were being transported to camps from which they were likely never to return. from
70 years later the horror of the Nazi concentration camps is hard to imagine but the widespread prejudice that Roma face in Europe (known as ‘anti-Gypsyism’ or ‘Romaphobia’) has not abated and is an unwelcome fact of their daily lives.
Politicians throughout Europe continue to use hate speech against Roma which in turn creates a climate in which racist violence is thought acceptable by offenders and tragically, in recent years Roma have been the victims of violent racist attacks and sometimes murder. For example, in 2012 a Slovakian policeman shot dead 3 Roma and severely injured two more in a killing spree which he said that he was motivated by a desire to ‘solve the Roma problem’; whilst in 2013 four men with links to nationalist organisations were jailed in Hungary for 9 separate attacks on Roma and the murder of 6 people.
Meanwhile, Roma continue to be forcibly evicted from their homes without the provision of suitable alternative accommodation, their children continue to suffer segregation in schools and they tend to live on the margins of society.
Here in the United Kingdom, Romani Gypsies, Travellers and Roma migrants are amongst the most discriminated ethnic groups in our society and they are routinely targeted by those using hate speech both online and in the media.
How then should hate speech aimed at Romani Gypsies, Travellers and Roma be tackled effectively in the United Kingdom? The answer is simple. It is high time that in appropriate cases the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) use their existing powers to prosecute the perpetrators (whoever they may be) for inciting racial hatred.
As a society, we place great value in the right to free speech, or freedom of expression. That right is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to freedom of expression necessarily covers expression that may ‘offend, shock or disturb’ certain groups in society. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that democracy is not without its rough edges and that tough talk is part of the cut and thrust of public debate and discourse.
However, Article 10 does not protect hate speech, whether it is expressed by politicians, journalists or individuals and in the United Kingdom, those using hate speech (in whatever form) may commit the criminal offence of inciting racial hatred. Whether they do so will depend upon whether the words used are ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ and they intend to ‘stir up racial hatred’ or, ‘having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby’.
Clearly, decisions to prosecute will only be taken where there is enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and if it is considered that a prosecution is needed in the public interest.
However, I would argue that the public interest in tackling hate speech aimed at Gypsies, Travellers and Roma should almost always tell in favour of a prosecution being brought against the perpetrator; and that if the authorities use their existing powers effectively then we may be able to tackle what has often become known as the last socially acceptable form of racism in the United Kingdom.
Note that the term ‘Roma’ is used by the Council of Europe and the European Union to include Romani people, Sinti, Kale, and other related groups living in Europe, as well as ethnic minorities that identify themselves as Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers.
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Minsters’ Recommendation 97(20) defined the term in the following way: ‘the term “hate speech” shall be understood as covering all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.
For example, a recent survey showed that Romani Gypsies and Travellers were the number one targets of hate speech on twitter. See http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-06/18/hatebrain-stats-uk