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Japan should enact a law banning hate speech to protect the nation’s ethnic minorities, according to a United Nations expert who said such a change would not impact freedom of speech.

“The international law makes it quite clear that in certain circumstances (hate speech) must be prohibited,” Rita Izsak, a U.N. special rapporteur on minority issues, said at a symposium held in Tokyo late last month.

Izsak claimed restricting hate speech with penal sanctions can be justified as long as it is legitimate and such curbs are necessary and proportionate to protect the self-esteem of targeted groups.

“If hate incidents are not tackled quickly and effectively, targeted groups may experience permanent damage to their self-esteem and sense of belonging within their societies,” she warned. “If you look at genocide . . . the first stop in this line is always hate speech.”

Special rapporteurs are independent human rights advocates appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council (OHCHR). As of last March, 55 mandates had been assigned by the U.N. to investigate human rights violations, report on situations, and give advice to countries where human rights problems exist.

In Spain, for example, people who provoke discrimination against others face one to three years in prison. Canada also has sanctions against perpetrators of hate speech, including up to five years in prison for severe offenses, Izsak said.

Japan has received numerous recommendations from the international community to restrict hate speech.

In August 2014, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Japan to take “appropriate steps to revise its legislation” with penal sanctions to address the spread of hate speech against minority groups, particularly Korean residents in Japan.

Given such notices, the Justice Ministry has campaigned to raise public awareness of issues surrounding hate speech through such means as posters and online advertisements. But the nation has fallen short of establishing a law to restrict hate speech, citing the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

To move forward, Izsak said Japan should establish an independent human rights institution to collect demographic data on minority groups, including religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds, in order to weigh strategies to help them.

“Data is, as I understand, very much missing in Japan,” she said, adding such institutions can also function as a channel for minority groups to voice complaints and report to the government.

Aside from creating a legal framework, Izsak said Japan should overhaul its educational curriculum to teach the history of minority groups.

“There is a large number of Korean descendants here — some of them are naturalized, some of them are Korean nationals,” she said. “But it’s very difficult for me to accept that there is so little — if sometimes close to zero — discussion about who they are.”

The lack of education about ethnic minorities, she claimed, has led to a society that tolerates hate speech and to an unfair state system that disadvantages them.

“They (Koreans in Japan) are excluded from participation in political life. They cannot vote. They cannot work for the government,” she said. “For me, this is one of the biggest differences if I compare the situation here to other countries.”

Izsak’s visit to Japan in January was not in her official capacity because, although she had asked to be formally invited by the Japanese government, she was not. As a result, she needs to come back to conduct comprehensive research to be reported to OHCHR about the situation of hate speech here.

“Why I choose to write this report on that topic is exactly because of the individual complaints I received from minority victims of hate speech and hate crime who felt threatened, who felt that they were degraded, put in an inferior position, and who were afraid that the stigmatization may threaten their community in the long term,” she said.”I am here to protect (ethnic minorities).”

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