Understanding Genocide Denial Legislation: A Comparative Analysis

By Pruitt, William R. | International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, July-December 2017 | Go to article overview

Understanding Genocide Denial Legislation: A Comparative Analysis


Pruitt, William R., International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences


Introduction

Genocide is often considered to be the worst of crimes that humanity can inflict on one another. But when thinking of the harm caused by genocide there is one aspect that is sometimes overlooked. A genocide survivor may find that they are re-victimized when they hear someone deny their experience. Genocide denial can have a drastic negative effect upon survivors and others touched by the crime of genocide.

There are multiple dangers attached to genocide denial. In many ways denial is an attempt to kill the truth (Charney, 2000). Denying the truth can have ripple effects including impunity for the perpetrators and lack of awareness to recognize the reemergence of threatening behavior (Charney, 2000). In fact, Gregory Stanton has made denial the final stage of genocide in his ten stages. Denial following genocide is one of the "surest indicators of further genocidal massacres" (Stanton, 2016).

Denial can take many forms. When genocide is negated, the victims of that genocide are also being rejected. They are denied their status as a victim. Doing so could make it easier for future re-victimization (Etlis, 2008). Victim denial can also have the effect of shifting blame from the perpetrators to the victims. If the victims deserved what happened to them, then they are not truly victims but instead instigators and agitators (Alvarez, 1997). When the Germans turned the Jews into the enemy, the Holocaust could take on the image of self-defense (Alvarez, 1997). When one is acting in self-defense, violence is not abhorred but condoned. If genocide denial leads to victim denial, the process of extermination could reignite (Stanton, 2016).

At its base level, genocide denial is lying. Lying can be harmful by contributing to a false consciousness (Nash-Marshall & Mahdessian, 2013). Genocide denial ignores facts, attempts to reduce responsibility, and encourage impunity (Smith, 2010). These types of behavior lay the path for future genocides to be committed. Denial is but one way to promote repetition of genocide. In this context, where denial can have such long-range negative consequences, many countries have proscribed denial with criminal penalties.

Denial Legislation

Criminalizing genocide denial is not a panacea for every country. Even those that do outlaw denial are faced with questions of balancing interests in free speech and dignity. Hate speech is treated differently around the world based on many factors (Etlis, 2008). The United States has few limitations on hate speech preferring to secure broad free speech protections. Countries like Germany and France though are more willing to proscribe hate speech as a violation of a person's human dignity (Brugger, 2002). The European Convention on Human Rights protects free speech but does carve out an exception for the "protection of the reputation or rights of others" (McGoldrick & O'Donnell, 2006, p. 467).

Within these understandings of free speech protection and respect for human dignity, twenty-one countries currently criminalize genocide denial. The majority of these countries are in Europe: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Poland, Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Most these countries also represent nations that were attacked and/or conquered by Hitler during the Second World War. This may provide special incentive for these countries to remember the Holocaust and crimes of the Nazi Socialist government. Only three non-European countries currently ban genocide denial: Colombia, Israel, and Rwanda. Again, these countries have had a deep and personal connection to genocide that might have spurred legislation on denial.

While the focus on these laws tends to concentrate on the act of denial, most of the laws on genocide denial are broader. Among the twenty-one nations there are very broad laws prohibiting many types of actions and laws that are more narrowly written. …

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