Hate violence is a global problem – and a crime against humanity

The new face of hate violence: Dylann Roof. Berkeley County/EPA

The shootings in Charleston, South Carolina have drawn the world’s attention to the problem of violence motivated by hate. And while the spotlight will inevitably move on, the daily reality of hate violence around the world will continue unabated.

In most instances, of course, “hate” as a sentiment isn’t as starkly conveyed as in the Charleston murders. But “hate violence” has become a catch-all label for acts impelled or accompanied by prejudice, bias or bigotry.

Hate violence is violence in which some aspect of the victim’s social identity – their “race”, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, or a disability – plays some role in the reason for their victimisation. While the immediate impulses for the perpetrators vary, the violence is nested in a common denominator: a widespread denigration of social identities to one degree or another across nations and communities which permits discrimination, oppression and violence.

Some involves fatal and other severe acts fuelled by extremist ideology, as in the case of the Charleston racist murders. But most involves non-fatal violence, harassment and abuse committed not by dedicated hatemongers, but by otherwise very ordinary people.

When we look at the scale of hate violence worldwide, and the particular harms and consequences inflicted, we can’t ignore the stark truth: this is a global public health crisis.

Discriminatory violence

In European nations alone, the 2008 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey revealed a disturbing picture of criminal victimisation of minority ethnic, refugee and migrant communities. Roma/Gypsy communities reported the highest levels of racist victimisation. Almost a fifth (18%) of Roma/Gypsy respondents in the survey reported at least one incident of personal racist criminal victimisation including assaults, threats and serious harassment in the previous 12 months.

A more recent survey by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency in 2012 of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people showed that just over one in 20 respondents said that they had been attacked or threatened with violence at least once in the previous 12 months, partly or completely because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Almost one-fifth said that they had been victims of harassment targeted on the same basis in the previous 12 months.

A 2012 survey of discrimination and hate crime against Jews in EU Member States, also carried out by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, showed that almost one in 20 respondents had experienced antisemitic violence or threats in the previous year, while more than a quarter had experienced antisemitic harassment.

When looking beyond Europe, religious bigotry is possibly the foremost force behind hate violence in the 21st century. Theologically driven hate underpins many of the atrocities committed by radical groups such as Islamic State; elsewhere, intercommunal or sectarian hatreds fuel violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Pakistan, Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, and Hindu Jat and Muslim communities in the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh in India.

In Europe, meanwhile, Muslim communities are victimised because of their religious identity –- though these attacks are not necessarily theologically driven and often occur for other reasons, such as scapegoating for extremist Islamist terror attacks.

Violence against women

When we consider hate violence globally, one stark fact stands out: violence against women, most of it committed by intimate partners, is pervasive in all nations, cultures and communities. The scale of the problem cannot be exaggerated. The World Health Organisation concluded in 2013 that such violence is “a global health problem of epidemic proportions” requiring urgent action.

Violence against women is not simply a private matter between two people; it has a deep cultural basis, just like other forms of hate violence. It is incubated in endemic patriarchal attitudes and values about women’s place relative to men in social and personal relations.

These attitudes are pervasive across nation states and communities, although their precise dimensions and intensity differ according to particular local contexts.

Public health

Meanwhile, in violent conflicts motivated by ethnic and religious hatred, civilian populations are not just collateral damage; they are the deliberate target of violence.

Worshippers galvanised by the Charleston massacre. EPA/Richard Ellis

While numerous types of violence can constitute crimes against humanity, hatred has featured prominently in such offences. This is not something confined to distant history: think of the genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda in 1994, the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys by elements of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, or what’s happening now in Iraq and Syria (to name but a few).

Even in relatively socially stable societies, hate violence can be more harmful than other forms of violence. Most victims of violence suffer some post-victimisation impact – sometimes physical injury, sometimes behavioural changes and often emotional and psychological consequences. In the case of hate violence, however, there is evidence to show that the emotional and psychological harms inflicted can potentially be greater.

The impact of hate violence can also extend well beyond the person who is on the immediate receiving end. It sends a terrifying message to everyone who shares the victim’s identity: this could be you.

In some nations, hate violence is specifically criminalised as “hate crime”. This is an important official denunciation of such violence and provides a structure for a criminal justice response, but it is no substitute for a society’s capacity to prevent hate violence and support victims. Ultimately, the causes of hate violence lie in the communities where it occurs.

In other countries, hate violence will only be tackled with a strengthening of basic social justice and democratic norms. And in some contexts, such as the conflict in Iraq and Syria, the world needs to call the hate violence what it is and prosecute its perpetrators for what they have committed: a crime against humanity.