The objective of the Hartford Guidelines is to inform legal actors and policymakers when they are confronted with hate speech and inciting speech in the context of crimes against humanity, or when prominent figures publicly and directly incites genocide. Mass atrocities are usually preceded by a propaganda campaign in which politicians and media figures foment ethnic, national, racial or religious hatred, and incite their followers to acts of violence. Yet historically, the international legal mechanisms available to prevent or punish inciting speech have been inadequate. Courts face unique challenges when adjudicating international speech crimes such as direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and instigating crimes against humanity. The courts must balance freedom of expression with the need to regulate potentially harmful speech and punish those who incite others to commit genocide or persecute members of a protected group.

The Hartford Guidelines are designed to assist international jurists and policymakers as they confront public expression that is prohibited under international law. The Guidelines set out the international law on crimes such as incitement to genocide and ordering or soliciting crimes against humanity. They identify ways of developing the preventative nature of speech crimes and recommend a more rigorous framework for assessing the likelihood that a speech act could cause an offence. Distilling the social science findings, the Hartford Guidelines provide a checklist of factors known to elevate the risk of violence. Finally, they recommend an amendment to the International Criminal Court Statute that would criminalize acts that “intentionally, directly, and publicly incite others to commit any of the crimes in the Statute.”