Applying Vernacularization to Hate Speech Based on Religion or Belief: A Short Exploration

Eugenia Relaño Pastor is Professor of Law in the School of Law, Complutense University, Madrid (Spain), and Cooperation Partner in the Department of Law and Anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Germany).

In a world marked by vast cultural diversity, implementing global human rights standards, particularly regarding hate speech, demands nuanced, context-sensitive approaches. In the context of hate speech based on religion or belief, the report by UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) Nazila Ghanea underscores the necessity of fostering global cooperation to address this issue effectively and of adopting comprehensive strategies that integrate legal, educational, and policy measures tailored to specific cultural and social contexts​​.

The Concept of Vernacularization

The concept of vernacularization predicates adapting global legal standards to local cultural nuances. In the field of anthropology, vernacularization involves observing how different cultures reinterpret universal human experiences or concepts. Anthropologists study these processes to understand how cultural practices and beliefs shape and redefine universal concepts within their own contexts. For instance, the concept of justice, which may be seen as a universal principle, is often vernacularized into local customs and practices that resonate with the local population’s sense of fairness and rightness.

Similarly, in law, vernacularization occurs when international or national laws are implemented at the local level in the context of human rights. In this vein, Sally Engle Merry argued that vernacularization involves the selective incorporation and reworking of global human rights norms into local moral and cultural frameworks.[1] This recontextualization is critical because it allows for the ownership and authenticity of global concepts, such as human rights, within different cultural contexts, thus enhancing their legitimacy and applicability. This process not only adapts global norms to fit local contexts but also sometimes resists aspects of those norms incompatible with local values. Merry’s analysis also highlights the agency of local actors in shaping the implementation of global standards. It stresses the transformative potential of these interactions for both global norms and local practices.[2]

Vernacularization and Hate Speech Norms

Vernacularization in the context of hate speech laws involves more than simple text translation; it requires a deep cultural, legal, and societal adaptation of norms. As the Special Rapporteur’s report emphasizes, combating hate speech requires robust legal mechanisms and strategies that respect and incorporate local cultural and religious identities. Laws that are effective in one context may not be suitable in another due to differing historical, social, and cultural backgrounds. For example, in deeply religious societies, the direct application of Western models of understanding hate speech legislation might need to address the nuanced ways in which hate speech is experienced and perpetrated in those societies.

Research has highlighted the difficulties in applying generic hate speech norms to specific local contexts.[3] Specifically, in Western societies, the challenges include not only defining the boundaries of offensive speech and balancing this with freedom of expression but also acknowledging the complex and varied constitutional responses to hate speech because deep cultural and historical factors influence national approaches to hate speech.[4]

Rosenfeld, for example, emphasizes the stark differences in how hate speech is handled constitutionally across different jurisdictions, particularly comparing the United States with other Western democracies like Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.[5] In the United States, hate speech enjoys broad constitutional protection under the First Amendment, emphasizing freedom of expression and the belief that the best response to harmful speech is more speech, not enforced silence (e.g., R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul). Conversely, in countries like Canada, Germany, and the UK, hate speech is subject to stricter regulations and is often criminalized.[6] These countries prioritize societal harmony and the protection of minority groups over the unrestricted freedom of expression (e.g., Erdoğdu and İnce v. Turkey considered by the European Court of Human Rights).

As a matter of fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB addresses both content-based and contextual approaches to hate speech in her report. When analyzing the six-part threshold test of the Rabat Plan of Action for determining hate speech as a criminal offense, she underlines the relevance of the context, the content, and the speaker’s intent. One of the singularities of Ghanea’s report is adopting a holistic understanding of the international human rights fight against hate speech based on religion and belief. The report underscores the importance of considering hate speech within its broader social and political context, which involves looking at the historical, cultural, and societal conditions that give rise to hate speech.

The concept of vernacularization comes into play in the report’s call for a transformative approach that includes not only criminalization and counter-speech but going beyond these to address root causes through education, dialogue, and structural reforms. Thus, vernacularization entails engaging deeply with the community to understand how language, symbolism, religion, and local customs influence perceptions and behaviors related to hate speech. Effective vernacularization requires active engagement with local stakeholders, including community leaders, educators, religious figures, and civil society organizations.[7]

These stakeholders provide invaluable insights into the local context and help tailor culturally appropriate and effective interventions. For example, in regions where oral tradition dominates, efforts to combat hate speech might focus on community dialogue and storytelling as educational and transformative tools rather than solely focusing on written materials or formal legal processes.[8] Engaging local stakeholders not only aids in customizing approaches but also builds local capacity to address hate speech from within the community.

Furthermore, vernacularization can guide the design of educational and awareness campaigns about the dangers of hate speech and the importance of tolerance and respect for diversity. These campaigns should be tailored to reflect local languages, idioms, and cultural references to maximize their impact and accessibility.[9] Involving local artists, musicians, and media can help disseminate anti-hate messages in engaging and culturally resonant forms. Such campaigns can effectively change perceptions and behaviors by embedding messages of tolerance and respect in familiar cultural forms, making them more impactful and sustainable.

Finally, robust monitoring and feedback mechanisms are essential to assess the effectiveness of vernacularized approaches to combating hate speech. These mechanisms should involve local communities in ongoing dialogue to evaluate the impact of interventions and identify areas for improvement.[10] Feedback from community members can provide crucial insights into how well the adapted norms and laws are being received and whether they are effectively reducing incidents of hate speech. This iterative process ensures that the approaches remain relevant and effective over time, adapting to changes in community dynamics and challenges.

Looking for a Balance Between Localization and Adherence to International Standards

Indeed, many challenges in applying vernacularization to hate speech on grounds of religion and belief could emerge. These include the risk of diluting the universality of human rights norms, potential conflicts between local customs and international human rights standards, and the complexities of implementing tailored approaches in diverse and changing communities.[11] For example, implementing vernacularization in the context of authoritarian regimes faces several challenges.

First, authoritarian political contexts limit the involvement of local communities, which is vital for effective vernacularization. Second, authoritarian governments may oppose adopting international norms that threaten their power or contradict their ideology. The quest of curbing dissent and the lack of freedom of speech in this kind of regime makes impossible the open discussions that are a prerequisite for adapting norms to the local context. The risk is high that the government will manipulate vernacularization to maintain current power dynamics or suppress minority groups with the justification of cultural adaptation. Therefore, navigating these challenges requires a delicate balance between respect for local cultures and adherence to universal human rights principles. The role of legal practitioners and policymakers is vital in being capable of negotiation, flexible in implementation, and committed to ethical practices that respect local and global norms.

To conclude, applying vernacularization to combat hate speech based on religion or belief offers a promising pathway toward more effective and culturally sensitive legal practices. By rooting anti-hate speech laws in communities’ cultural, linguistic, and social fabrics, this approach can enhance the legitimacy, acceptance, and efficacy of legal frameworks designed to protect individuals from hate speech.[12] Ultimately, the success of vernacularization depends on continuous dialogue, collaboration, and commitment to aligning local practices with universal principles of dignity and respect.


[1] Sally Engle Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (Univ. of Chicago Press 2006).

[2] Mark Goodale, Justice in the Vernacular: An Anthropological Critique of Commensuration, 49(1) L. & Soc. Inquiry 7, 7–25 (2024).

[3] Eric Barendt, Religious Hatred Laws: Protecting Groups or Belief? 17 Res Publica 41, 41–53 (2011).

[4] Irene Spigno, Discorsi d’odio. Modelli giurisprudenziali a confront (Giuffré 2018).

[5] Michel Rosenfeld, Hate Speech in Constitutional Jurisprudence: A Comparative Analysis, in The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses 242, 242–289 (Michael Herz & Peter Molnar eds., Cambridge Univ. Press 2012).

[6] James Weinstein, Hate Speech Bans, Democracy, and Political Legitimacy, 32 Const. Commentary 527, 527–89 (2017).

[7] Sally Engle Merry, Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle, 108(1) Am. Anthropologist 38, 38–51 (2006).

[8] Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence, supra n. 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

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