Elections and Ethnic Violence: Election-Related Violence: The Role of Dangerous Speech

By Benesch, Susan | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Elections and Ethnic Violence: Election-Related Violence: The Role of Dangerous Speech


Benesch, Susan, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


This panel was convened at 10:45 a.m., Friday, March 25, by its moderator, Sarah Knuckey of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University, who introduced the panelists: Peter Bartu of the University of California at Berkeley; Susan Benesch of the World Policy Institute; Jeff Fischer of Creative Associates; and Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Justice Initiative. **

Even more than violence, inflammatory speech is a common feature of elections. In many cases, violence and fiery speech come hand in hand, by no coincidence. This juxtaposition gives rise to the case I wish to argue here: inflammatory speech provides opportunities for preventing violence in the context of elections, in which violence is very often related to ethnicity. However, it is critical to define such speech clearly, so that legitimate speech is not restricted. International law focuses on the link between speech and violence. Both human rights law and international criminal law single out forms of incitement for prohibition, but neither body of law defines these forms of incitement in enough detail to distinguish them reliably from other inflammatory speech.

To advance toward the twin goals of preventing election-related violence while protecting freedom of expression, I propose a more fine-grained category than treaty law provides: "dangerous speech," or incitement that is likely to succeed in catalyzing violence. I have developed an analytical framework to identify this dangerous speech, and will conclude by describing it briefly.

Elections tend to foster inflammatory speech because they are tantamount to battles, sublimated to one extent or another. Political speakers exploit and inflame rancor between ethnicities or other groups, to bolster support within their own communities and attack their rivals, sometimes to the point of catalyzing mass violence. Often the goal is to sabotage an election, but violence may be used to influence the result of a vote as well. (1) As Chidi Odinkalu noted in his own remarks on this panel, where elections are peaceful and orderly, the rules are certain and the outcome is uncertain; by contrast, where electoral contestants resort to inflammatory speech and violence, they are often aiming for the reverse, namely, uncertain rules and a certain outcome.

Kenya has seen elections beset by inflammatory speech and violence all too often, most recently and catastrophically in 2007 and 2008. At the time of this Annual Meeting in March 2011, Cote d'Ivoire is, unfortunately, another example in the headlines, in the aftermath of two rounds of presidential elections in October and November 2010. More than 50 states have scheduled national elections for the remainder of this year and the next one, and ethnic or identity-based violence is a risk in many of them, including Kenya during its next presidential election planned for August 2012.

In such cases, political actors use inflammatory speech as a tool to foment violence, and/ or to persuade audiences to condone violence carried out by members of their own group or ethnicity, ostensibly on their behalf. Dangerous inflammatory speech is characterized by certain hallmarks, from case to case, as briefly described below. (2) Since such speech precedes violence, it provides two distinct opportunities for violence prevention:

(1) early warning

(2) limiting violence by restricting the dangerousness of speech. It is important to note that this is not the same as limiting the speech itself. It is possible to limit the dissemination of speech (and therefore its impact), since there is no human right to broadcast or, for example, send a text message to 10,000 mobile phones. It may also be possible to limit the impact of inflammatory speech by supplying alternative sources of information.

Two key challenges present themselves:

(1) to identify unlawful speech, and especially to distinguish it from political speech, which constitutes the exercise of a human right, and which is essential for democratic functioning at all times--never more than during an electoral process. …

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