The legal framework under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Hate speech has had unprecedented consequences in the digital age. Despite being a global problem, international legal responses to it have been slow-coming and patchy. One of the core international legal instruments on the matter is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While generally protecting freedom of expression, Article 19(3) of the ICCPR does allow limitations to speech insofar as these are provided by law, necessary and proportionate for a legitimate reason. Likewise, Article 20 requires states parties to prohibit by law war propaganda as well as any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

This paper builds on the existing work of United Nations bodies to provide more granular and well-calibrated guidance on the application of these provisions to online hate speech, particularly in fragile settings. First, it clarifies why international human rights law matters for states, companies and civil society organisations operating in this space. Second, it provides a taxonomy of online hate speech, based on the distinct legal consequences that different forms of hate speech attract under Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR. Three categories are proposed, along with respective content moderation measures: a) prohibited, b) limited, and c) free speech acts. The paper then applies this framework to fragile settings.