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More stomping free speech flat in Europe: Genocide “denial” to be criminalized?

Remember how often I rail against misguided laws that seek to criminalize Holocaust denial, laws such as the one in Austria under which David Irving was imprisoned? I’ve referred to them more than once as “stomping free speech flat,” and I still believe that’s what they do. I’ve also pointed out the danger of a potential slippery slope, an assertion for which I’ve been criticized, sometimes vigorously. Well, take a look at this (via the History News Network):

PEOPLE who question the official history of conflicts in Africa and the Balkans could be jailed for up to three years for “genocide denial”, under proposed European Union legislation.

Germany, the current holder of the union’s rotating presidency, is to table legislation to outlaw “racism and xenophobia”. Included in the draft EU directive are plans to outlaw Holocaust denial, creating an offence that does not exist in British law.

But the proposals, seen by the Telegraph of London, go much further and would criminalise those who question the extent of war crimes that have taken place in the past 20 years.

Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, Atlanta, said the proposals were misplaced. “I adhere to that pesky little thing called free speech and I am very concerned when governments restrict it,” Professor Lipstadt said.

“How will we determine precisely what is denial? Will history be decided by historians or in a courtroom?”

The proposals extend the idea of Holocaust denial to the “gross minimisation of genocide out of racist and xenophobic motives”, to include crimes dealt with by the International Criminal Court.

The text states: “Each member state shall take the measures necessary to ensure that the following intentional conduct is punishable: ‘publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in’… the Statute of the ICC.”

I kid you not; they’re actually trying to get the E.U. to pass a law that would criminalize “minimization of genocide out of racist” motives. Earlier drafts of this legislation included a law that would outlaw the swastika in all E.U. member states, a provision that was only removed when Hindus complained that the swastika was a sacred symbol to them that was hijacked by the Nazis. As Holocaust historian and author of the book, History On Trial, Deborah Lipstadt put it:

I understand and sympathize with them [the Hindus]. Imagine if the USA had banned the cross because the KKK turned it into such a symbol of racism and hatred?

Exactly.

I can just picture the Holocaust deniers’ glee over this: “Look how dangerous we are! We’re so dangerous that the E.U. isn’t just banning Holocaust denial, but trying to ban all denial of ‘politically incorrect’ history.” It’s just the sort of thing that allows these scumbags to look plausible to the uninformed when they don the mantle of free speech martyr. Professor Lipstadt put it this way: “When you pass these kinds of laws it suggests to the uninformed bystander that you don’t have the evidence to prove your case.”

Indeed.

Of course, the larger issue here is who decides what does and does not constitute a “genocide”? Historians? What if historians disagree? Politicians and judges? Yes, unfortunately, that’s exactly who would end up deciding what does and does not constitute “genocide denial” if such horribly misguided and–yes, I’ll say it–breathtakingly idiotic laws are passed, potentially with these consequences:

A German government spokesman said: “Whether a specific historic crime falls within these definitions would be decided by a court in each case.”

If agreed by EU member states, the legislation is likely to declare open season for human rights activists and organisations seeking to establish a body of genocide denial law in Europe’s courts.

European Commission officials insist that the legislation is necessary: “racism and xenophobia can manifest themselves in the form of genocide denial so that it is very important to take strong action”.

But the legislation faces stiff opposition from academics who fear it would stifle debate over some of the biggest issues in contemporary international relations.

[…]

Even without the threat of prosecution, there is concern that academics will try to avoid controversy by ignoring or even suppressing research that challenges genocide claims or numbers of those killed.

David Chandler, the professor of international relations at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, fears that the draft law could inhibit his work.

“My work teaching and training researchers, and academic work more broadly, is focused upon encouraging critical thinking. Measures like this make academic debate and discussion more difficult,” he said.

Prof Chandler also worries that the legislators will close down democratic debate on foreign policy. “Genocide claims and war crimes tribunals are highly political and are often linked to controversial Western military interventions. Should this be unquestioned? Is it right for judges to settle such arguments?” he asked.

Norman Stone, the professor of history at Turkey’s Koç University, argues that any attempt to legislate against genocide denial is “quite absurd”.

“I am dead against this kind of thing,” he said. “We can not have EU or international legal bodies blundering in and telling us what we can and can not say.”

“Absurd” is an amazing understatement. These pernicious laws would take a huge whack at free speech. The chilling effect on speech would be profound when it comes to anything that has to do with massacres, ethnic cleansing, or genocide. I know that if I were an academic studying such issues and such laws existed, I’d think twice before writing or saying anything that might get me entangled in such laws, even if the evidence is still in dispute. Remember, this law wouldn’t just apply to the Holocaust, the most extensively documented genocide in history; it would apply to more recent events, where investigations by historians are still ongoing and where the evidence is not nearly as clear.

These sorts of laws wouldn’t just “stomp free speech flat” in Europe, as I’m fond of saying, they’d shoot it in the head ten times, chop the body up and put it in a burlap sack, tie the sack to a hunk of concrete, and drop it into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, there is resistance. There is a backlash. We can only hope that it will be enough to preserve free speech in Europe. The greatest victory that Holocaust deniers and fascists could ever have over free nations is if those free nations, in an attempt to combat them, willingly throw away their own freedoms that have taken so long to achieve. If these nannies get their way, Europeans won’t be allowed to criticize (or, as the they would put it, “defame“) religion because it might offend someone belonging to the religion criticized and won’t be able to dispute versions of genocide given the official imprimatur of the law and the courts without risking prison or fines. That’s an unacceptable price to pay to fight Holocaust denial and religious bigotry.

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This “genocide denial” law is the best example supporting that contention that I can find.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

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