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Guest blog: Is Finland in need of hate crimes prevention law?

Hate crimes affect members of minority groups all over the world. Some countries take it more seriously than others by passing and enacting hate crime prevention laws, and by investigating suspected cases and prosecuting perpetrators so as to deliver justice to victims. The number of suspected hate crimes registered by Finnish police have increased more than fifty per cent between 2014 and 2015.

Every year since 2008 Finland’s Police University College publishes a report on hate crime based on data of suspected hate crimes reported to the police. The report provides insights into the state of hate crimes in the country. Currently, the Finnish penal code does not define hate crime or racist crime. However, since 2011 the racist motive has been an increasing ground for punishments. Hate motives such as race, skin colour, religion or sexual orientation are taken into consideration by courts during sentencing, and they may lead to an enhanced penalty. However, it appears that the police, prosecutors and judges have challenges in recognising the potential hate motive in the crime process.

Current legal measures may not be enough

A total of 1250 suspected cases of hate crimes were brought to the attention of the police in 2015, according to police data. Compared to the previous year the figure represents a 52 percent increase in suspected hate crimes. Majority of suspected cases in 2015 had racist features based on ethnicity and national background.

Laws do not stop crime but laws and prosecutions may deter crime. Hate crime laws and prosecution of suspected cases are primordial in the fight against hate crimes. A mere penalty-enhancement approach, as is the case in Finland, seems to be insufficient.

The National Action Plan for the Prevention of Violent Radicalisation and Extremism published in 2016 by Finland’s Ministry of the Interior makes a connection between hate crime and violent radicalisation and extremism. According to the action plan individuals targeted by hate crimes are not the only victims since the entire community the victim represents is affected, and individuals and groups targeted by hate speech and hate crime run a high risk of becoming radicalised – especially when they feel that society and the authorities do not sufficiently intervene and protect their rights. It is stated in the action plan that if victims do not receive support the general willingness to report hate crimes to the police may decrease. Hate crime therefore may have far reaching negative consequences on society in general.

Do we need new hate crime legislation in Finland?

One way to show that Finnish society and the authorities are concerned about hate crime and its impact on targeted individuals and groups would be through the passing and enactment of a law that expressly defines hate crime and punishes perpetrators.

In the United States, for example, hate crimes have been in law books on the federal level since 1968, albeit with a limited reach. In 2009 US hate crimes laws were strengthened and expanded with the passage of the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

As a member of an ethnic minority group affected by hate crime in Finland it is fair to disclose that as of the time of this writing I have not been a victim of hate crime such as violence or destruction of property – but I have been at the receiving end of hate speech or racist verbal abuse. Freedom of expression needs to be protected but when speech crosses the line and becomes incitement of hatred or agitation against a group of people on grounds of skin colour, origin, belief, sexual orientation, gender or disability it should be subject to legal restrictions.

Finland better at tackling hate speech than hate crime

Finnish current legislation has several possibilities to tackle hate speech and hate-motivated violations. Defamation and ethnic agitation, are examples, in the Criminal Code – together with degrading, humiliating or hostile harassment in the Non-Discrimination Act. It is up to police and judges to use these provisions when needed.

Finland, in my opinion, does a better job combating hate speech – evidenced by numerous convictions for agitation or incitement to hatred against an ethnic group – than it does combating hate crime. This is so because of the existence of a law against ethnic agitation, and, on the other hand, the absence of explicit recognition and definition of hate crime in legislation. It should be carefully assessed whether hate crimes should explicitly recognised and defined in the legislation. This could be one step towards investigation and prosecution of hate crimes with the same level of enthusiasm as ethnic agitation or incitement to hatred.

Zuzeeko Abeng, Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Human Rights Law and International Labour Rights and a volunteer for the Finnish League for Human Rights. The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Finnish League for Human Rights.

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