Despite the notable improvements in civil rights and race relations of the past 70 years, we find ourselves today facing the threat of personal violence motivated by those same biases. Violent hate crimes are on the rise, reflecting an overall increase in xenophobic attitudes across Europe and North America, a revival of anti-Semitism and a continuation of prejudice against Muslims, Roma, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. Though governments are not now the perpetrators of the violence, they are failing to do everything in their power to stop it.
Last year’s disturbing developments included record levels of anti-Semitic violence in the United Kingdom, a nearly one-fifth jump in racially motivated attacks in Russia and a 24 percent increase in violent incidents involving sexual orientation bias in the United States, according to a recent survey by Human Rights First.
The trend across Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America is alarming. One critical question is how to get governments to acknowledge hate crimes and take steps against them.
There is no easy answer. In many countries, human rights organizations that might document and calm tensions simply do not exist. Many governments lack the will or the ability to tackle deeply rooted racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and sexual hatreds. Some, it must be said, simply turn a blind eye toward hate crimes out of indifference or for political considerations. Worse, others may even stir hatreds out of cynical self-interest.
Democratic nations, too, often have failed to systematically address hate crimes. The survey reveals that only 13 of the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security body, have adequate hate-crime monitoring and reporting systems in place. More than 40 nations fail to collect and publish complete information on hate crimes and thus don’t have a clear picture of the problem.
International nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights First seek to overcome these roadblocks by exposing the reality of hate crimes through the gathering and publicizing of data from nongovernmental sources and the media. This is critical work; demonstrating the extent of the problem serves as a powerful advocacy tool for pushing recalcitrant nations to take responsibility for crimes within their borders.
This strategy has resulted in several recent improvements:
• In Canada, the government for the first time collected and released national hate crime statistics.
• In Croatia, authorities prosecuted their first hate crime case, using a new hate crime law to prosecute a man who attempted to firebomb a gay pride parade.
• In the Netherlands, where only NGOs previously collected hate crime statistics, authorities have undertaken new measures to register and track cases of hate crimes through the criminal justice system.
• In Norway, although official hate crime statistics are not currently available, the justice minister has noted that hate violence against gay men and others is increasing, and announced that police have begun to register such crimes.
• In the United Kingdom, the government has taken a number of steps to enhance its response by committing to produce nationwide statistics on anti-Semitic hate crime by 2009.
• In Ukraine, the government created an interministerial commission to combat racism and xenophobia.
These are tangible and important steps forward. Of course, much remains to be done. Legal and administrative directives are meaningless unless police and other security forces are trained and prodded to track hate crimes and enforce provisions to investigate and prosecute them as such. Additionally, hate crime definitions must be broadened to include all forms of bias that might be the grounds for hate violence.
Today, few governments systematically collect information on anti-Semitic hate crimes, even as NGOs have reported significant increases in such crimes. This is the case in some nations with long histories of anti-Semitism.
On the other hand France, whose nearly half-million-strong Jewish community is one of the world’s largest, has achieved considerable success in its efforts to combat anti-Semitism. The government has ordered police to work with the Jewish community in responding to anti-Semitic violence. The number of crimes has dropped significantly, although more remains to be done.
Hate crimes committed against Muslims in much of Europe and North America also go largely undocumented. Only five of the 56 OSCE member states publicly report such incidents.
Nations are sensitive about their image abroad — and much more so in a world made smaller by globalization. Even authoritarian regimes take pains to burnish their image, if only to encourage international investment.
This leverage must not be wasted. We must continue to hold governments’ feet to the fire by revealing the failure to pay attention to hate crimes.
(Tad Stahnke is the director of Human Rights First’s Fighting Discrimination program and a co-author of the group’s recently released 2008 Hate Crimes Survey.)