Hate Speech Leads to Genocide


By Elizabeth Dovell

While hate speech can often be dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it could also serve as an important warning sign for a much more severe consequence: genocide. Increasingly virulent hate speech is often a precursor to mass violence. World Policy Institute fellow Susan Benesch, along with Dr. Francis Deng, the United Nations Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG), is attempting to find methods for preventing or limiting such violence,  by examining the effects of speech upon a population. Initiated in February 2010, Benesch’s project,  is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the US Institute of Peace and the Fetzer Institute. It was inspired by the high levels of inflammatory speech preceding Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war of the  mid-1990s. Since then, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda  has recognized the relationship between hate speech and genocide by trying the world’s first “incitement to genocide” cases, convicting radio broadcasters, a newspaper editor, and even a pop star for the crime. Following suit, the International Criminal Court has indicted a Kenyan radio host for broadcasts preceding the post-election violence of 2007-2008 in Kenya

In 1995 the ICC convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former Rwandan bourgmestre—or mayor—for incitement to genocide after he  gave a speech that was immediately followed by massacres. Benesch noted, however, that Akayesu’s words did not catalyze genocide in the country, since mass killings had already begun elsewhere in Rwanda by the time he spoke.

Article 3(c) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” as a punishable act, but does not describe the crime further, nor distinguish it from the broader category of hate speech. It is this existing law that Benesch strives to clarify through her project.

On October 28, 2010Benesch joined Deng at the United Nations for a panel discussion on their project and genocide prevention. Populations do not rise up  overnight to commit spontaneous, collective acts of genocide. Deng said. They “undergo collective social processes fueled by inflammatory speech.”

One of the key points made during the discussion was the increasingly influential role of the Internet and text messages in transmitting and spreading hate speech. However, a balance must be found between prohibiting hate speech and encouraging the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

There is an important distinction between limiting speech and limiting its dangerousness, Benesch said. It is vital to examine the context in which speech is made in order to properly determine the motivation behind it – and the effect it is likely to have. The dangerousness of speech cannot be estimated outside the  context in which it was made or disseminated, and its original message can become lost in translation.

Within context, speech can take on new meaning. “Are there particular aspects of the context that make a particular speech act more dangerous?” Benesch asked her audience on Thursday. “In other words, [are there factors] more likely to catalyze a particular form of incitement, like incitement to genocide, than other factors?”

Speech can also become less harmful if its sources are not credible, discredited or unseen by the population.

 “The law has not yet distinguished fully between incitement to genocide on the one hand, and on the other hand the much broader and variously defined category of hate speech,” Benesch said. She is working on developing a coherent definition so as to distinguish incitement to genocide from hate speech, a difficult task as a “particularly heinous crime is pressed up, conceptually speaking, against a particular cherished and fundamental right, which is the right of freedom of expression.” The challenge lies in walking the fine line between monitoring and recognizing incitement to genocide and avoiding measures that may lead to over-restricted speech.

It is possible to limit the dissemination of speech if not the speech itself, which is a possibility that may be conducive to the goal of not infringing upon freedom of speech and expression. In striving to identify what it is exactly that makes a particular speech act “hate speech” on the one hand or dangerous “incitement to genocide” on the other, Benesch presented her theory: that hate speech can be performed successfully by anyone, but not everyone can successfully use speech to incite genocide. The power and influence of the figure  addressing the speech to a particular audience, along with the contextual factors of that speaker and that audience (i.e. creating false scenarios of self-defense, in which the targeted group are accused of undue murderous acts), are substantial factors in distinguishing hate speech from incitement to genocide. The proposed policy responses include: logistical efforts to hinder inflammatory broadcasts (such as jamming radio waves), prosecution and arrests, and education. Getting the public involved and aware of the poisonous nature of inflammatory speech and how it can manipulate the masses is a key strategy in combating mass violence.

Susan Benesch is a fellow at the World Policy Institute.


Photo of human skulls leftover from the Rwandan genocide via Flickr courtesy of genvessel.

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