Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben Knapen on hate speech - 10 November 2021

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben Knapen on 10 November 2021. The spoken word counts.

Good morning,

Dutch people can be quite blunt and I’m sure I won’t offend my fellow countrymen when I say that courtesy is not a dominant feature in our codes of behaviour.

I started my career as a journalist.

In both my careers, as a journalist and as a politician, I’ve learned that ‘in the public domain, courtesy is like an air cushion. There is nothing in it, but it softens the blows of life.

We are all aware that the veneer of civilisation is very thin.

This brings me to today’s topic: hate speech.

Sometimes it starts in an attic room, with someone sitting at his, quite often his, and, very occasionally, her computer, feeling completely alone, unseen, anonymous, angry and frustrated.

But then, with one click, a terrible sentence, a vicious threat, leaves the private attic and ends up in the public domain.

No filter.

No balanced deliberation.

No preliminary discussion.

Just an angry, vicious, threatening outburst, out in the open.

And even more worrying: these angry outbursts can become a habit.

Hostile words can have a tremendous impact.

Today we are talking about the very worst form.

Words that incite hatred and violence.

And  words that specifically impact people of colour, women and minorities.

Together these words are a many-headed monster lashing out at everyone in its path.

Hate speech.

In chants at football matches, in tweets on your phone, in sound bites on TV.

Hate speech is all around us.

And these words have consequences.

I know that pupils from the Oslo Katedralskole spoke with the 22 July Information Centre about the Utøya massacre.

And about the hate speech that preceded this horrific and unforgivable act.

But sometimes we can’t see the impact that words have.  

For example, stereotypes about skin colour can cause lasting psychological damage.

Words can destroy young people’s dreams, desires and self-esteem and their confidence.

This is borne out by research.

An anonymised study of ten young pro footballers in the Netherlands found that eight of them had encountered forms of racism in their young career.

The damning conclusion was that they had no faith in a fair society. 

Stopp Hatprat

Both Norwegian and Dutch speakers understand these two words.

We have a lot in common.

Our similar languages.

Our strong societies, which remain open even when they are put to the test.

And our values.

Like freedom of expression, which is of paramount importance to us but also the responsibility to exercise that freedom with care.

Not everything that you are free to say, needs to be said.

That is a value too.

Because freedom has a flip side, when words incite hatred or violence.

Freedom and responsibility are not constants.

They are values that are instilled in us slowly over time in a centuries-long process that is nowhere near complete.

I’ll give you two examples.

Exactly four centuries ago, in 1621, a pioneer of freedom and tolerance in the Netherlands escaped from Loevestein Castle in a book chest.

His name was Hugo Grotius, and he is regarded as one of the greatest jurists of all time.

Famous for his treatise on freedom of the seas and free trade – Mare Liberum – his ideas also inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with it the freedom to express an opinion without fear of persecution.

In that castle, 400 years ago, he was being held prisoner for – as you probably already guessed – expressing his opinion.

Today, the freedom he wanted for all of us is a fundamental value.

Yet in 2021 journalists are still held prisoner all over the world.

And they are threatened, even in the Netherlands and Norway.

In my country, crime journalist Peter R. de Vries was recently killed.

The incident was both a shocking tragedy and should never have happened.

Freedom of expression isn’t a done deal.

Nor is the responsibility to exercise this freedom with care.

I’ll give you an example. About four centuries ago, in the time of Hugo Grotius, an early form of hate speech was brought to an end.

I’m talking about witch trials.

Innocent women were burned at the stake, on the basis of rumours and disinformation.

Today we consider these practices barbaric.

But still, brave, outspoken women who express unpopular opinions get called witches every day including the woman who was Minister of Foreign Affairs before me!

Freedom and responsibility are values that I have always cherished, as a journalist and politician …

And there is a delicate balance between the two.

Without freedom of expression, there can be no democracy.

If politicians aren’t free to express a range of opinions, it won’t be possible for people to choose between parties with different positions. 

But politicians, like everyone else, have a responsibility to avoid words that incite, words of hate to avoid language that chips away at the foundations on which free speech is built language that essentially silences others. 

It might seem like these are two different issues.

On the one hand, locking up and threatening people who express contentious opinions like journalists and human rights defenders.

And on the other, freely spewing words of hate, condemning others whose opinions you don’t like; the modern-day witch hunt.

But both are attacks on our democracy.

It’s up to us to strike a balance between freedom of speech and freedom from hate.

This is why the Netherlands and Norway are jointly committed to upholding our standards and values, and – at the same time – clamping down on hate speech, both on- and offline.

We need to set the rules together.

On the international political stage, and in the schoolyard.

In the football stands, and on screen at home.

Rules that are governed by three concepts: vidsyn, hap, and engasjement:

Broad-mindedness, hope and commitment. These words that grace the facade of the Nobel Peace Center are instruments that can help us examine different opinions openly and critically.

To protect both free speech and people.

Instruments that will help us here today.

Although I’m sure that the magnificent panoramic view of the Oslofjord will work wonders as well.