Using Hate Speech Warning Signs to Prevent Genocide
17 November 2010
The recent special event, “Dangerous Speech on the Road to Genocide,” held on 28 October at United Nations Headquarters in New York, highlighted the ongoing collaborative project between Dr. Francis Deng, the UN Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, and Susan Benesch, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. Initiated this past February, the purpose of the project is to identify the build-up to genocide, and to spot and stop human rights disasters before they occur.
“It’s a two-way, circular process. We receive information, we analyze it, with the lens of genocide prevention. We repeat it back to our colleagues, so they can be disseminated, and become purely catalytic in what is more a comprehensive UN action in prevention of genocide,” Deng told MediaGlobal.
Using the Nazi and Rwandan genocides as case study guides, the project’s goal is to identify how best to monitor, gauge the dangerousness of, and respond to specific speech acts within a country near a violent breaking point.
Deng, who also moderated the event, explained, “We are still at the [first] stage of studies. We have just commissioned this study. We hope that when it has been finalized, there will be policy implications.”
Benesch asserted that genocide results from identity-related conflicts which undergo a collective social process of exclusion and hysteria. This process is propelled by specifically targeted mass media messages, messages she labeled as precursors if not prerequisites to genocide.
Dehumanizing speech and a distinction between “us and them” were two examples Benesch gave to illustrate the way public media messages can incite hatred. Benesch’s study identifies that a population must be socially or historically vulnerable to internalize hate messages as truth. Widely disseminated messages that are simple and direct, and when the speaker has credibility with their audience, hate speech can quickly turn into a call to genocide.
“I would say that genocide is an extreme form of identity-based conflict,” Benesch said in an interview with MediaGlobal “It can be a cynical tool used by leaders who convince one group of people that another group of people are different and are their enemies.”
Dramatized in the movie Hotel Rwanda, the government-supported Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio broadcasts that propelled the Rwandan genocide are of specific interest to Benesch. The broadcasts labeled the Tutsi minority as traitors, colonial collaborators, and cockroaches. The radio broadcast used to begin the movie ends with the speaker warning listeners, “Stay alert, watch your neighbors.”
The RTLM radio broadcast is the trademark of what Benesch calls “accusation in a mirror.”
“The mirror I was talking about is a technique of incitement to genocide,” said Benesch. “In which a speaker tells the majority group that it is in great danger, because the minority group is going to do terrible damage unless they protect themselves.”
But it’s a fine distinction between hate speech and incitement to genocide and it’s one that must be made carefully. The freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the same time, incitement to genocide is an international crime, one for which the two editors of RTLM Radio, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza, were tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and received sentences of over thirty years imprisonment.
Benesch’s groundwork in identifying what aspects constitute incitement to genocide will be a useful guide. This research will give Deng objective tools to gather information about potentially virulent situations.
“Once we get this information, we can then factor them into the work we are doing, in developing a strategy of genocide prevention, including by-law for governments,” said Deng.
Benesch believes that the social collectivism and mob mentality that eventually leads groups to genocide can be distracted, which would result in a loss of momentum and forestall a potentially genocidal conflict.
While still in an early stage, Benesch’s report may discover passive and active tools to stop the widespread dissemination of information that is often a precursor to genocide.
Benesch’s work will hopefully identify how to best curtail the power of speech without restricting its use. Freedom of speech is one of our greatest rights, but it can hold power that we have only begun to understand.