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Incitement to commit an offense is an attempt to persuade another person, by whatever means, to commit an offense. There are many ways of doing this. Both rewards and punishments can provide the incentive to commit crimes. Someone can offer a reward for committing genocide, or they can try to blackmail a person. Incitement can be achieved by threats. A person can also try to get others to commit an offense by the use of argument and rhetoric. "Rabble rousing" is a common method of used to convince large groups of people act to in a particular way. Inflammatory speeches in political rallies have been used to prepare the way for genocide, or to whip crowds into states of frenzy in which killings may easily occur. The drafters of the genocide convention knew this all too well, and therefore included incitement to commit genocide as a listed crime in the 1948 Convention.

The Nature of the Crime of Incitement

Direct and public incitement to commit genocide is criminalized in Article III(c) of the 1948 Genocide Convention. A provision akin to Article III(c) can be found in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 25(3)(e)). Incitement is one of a limited group of crimes related to genocide (the others are attempts at genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide) which do not require the commission of one of the genocidal acts set out in Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Incitement, attempt and conspiracy are crimes in themselves. As none of these offenses require an act of genocide to be committed, they are referred to as inchoate (incomplete) crimes. Their incompleteness does not change the fact that they are criminal, as is clear from Article III of the 1948 Convention. However, incitements to commit crimes against humanity or war crimes are not internationally criminal unless they actually lead to the commission of those crimes.

The difference between incitement that does not lead to genocide (or is not proved to have done so) and encouragement that does lead to a crime is an important one. In the case of encouragement leading to an offense, the wrong is in participating in the crime of another by encouraging it. When the incitement does not lead to an offense by another person, the wrong is in the attempt to persuade someone else to commit the crime, as there is no other crime to be complicit in. The difference is not one which has always been respected by courts prosecuting people for acts that amount to incitement. This is probably because there is a considerable overlap between incitement to genocide and complicity in genocide. Therefore incitement can have a dual character, both as an inchoate crime, and, where it leads to others committing genocide, as a form of complicity in crimes of those others.

The History of Incitement to Genocide

The historical background against which Article III(c) of the Genocide Convention was drafted was the trial in the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal of two Nazi propagandists, Julius Streicher and Hans Fritzsche. Streicher was convicted of crimes against humanity by that tribunal, and sentenced to death. Fritzsche was acquitted. Streicher edited the newspaper Der Stürmer. Der Stürmer was, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, obscene. It mixed vicious anti-Semitism with pornography. Streicher was obsessed with the idea that the Jewish population represented a threat to the "purity" of the "Aryan race."

Streicher's fantasies were not the basis of his conviction at Nuremberg, however. Instead, it was charged that his writings "infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism" and also advocated participation in the Holocaust. Before the war he was an ardent anti-Semite. In 1939 he continued his campaign of hatred and advocacy of the Holocaust in a leading article in Der Stürmer, which read:

A punitive expedition must come against the Jews in Russia. A punitive expedition which will provide the same fate for them that every criminal and murderer must expect: Death sentence and execution. The Jews in Russia must be killed. They must be exterminated root and branch.

The fact that he made such statements when he knew that the Holocaust was being perpetrated was sufficient for the judges at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal to sentence him to hang. This was not, strictly speaking, for incitement to genocide. It was prosecuted as complicity in crimes against humanity rather than as an inchoate crime of incitement.

Streicher's conviction has not gone without criticism. Telford Taylor, chief counsel at the later American trials in Nuremberg, did not condone Streicher's actions, but he nonetheless criticized the judges for having allowed their personal disgust for him to lead them to convict him of participating in crimes against humanity without due regard for determining on what principles he was liable. Streicher could easily have been found guilty of inciting genocide, had the offense existed at the time.

Fritzsche was a radio propagandist, best known for his program "Hans Fritzsche speaks," in which he manifested his anti-Semitism. He escaped conviction before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal because, despite the anti-Semitic thrust of his radio work, he did not advocate the physical destruction of the European Jews. In the words of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, Fritzsche's claims that "the war had been caused by Jews and . . . their fate had turned out 'as unpleasant as the Führer had predicted' . . . did not urge persecution or extermination of Jews." The tribunal determined that Fritzsche's broadcasts constituted propaganda for Hitler and the war, rather than direct incitement to participate in the Holocaust. The distinction between the two may not always be clear.

Infamous examples of incitement to genocide occurred in Rwanda, in which mass media, in particular radio, was used to prepare the ground for, then encourage, the genocide against the Tutsi people in 1994. The use of radio was particularly important because a large part of the Rwandan population was illiterate, and therefore earlier attempts to encourage genocide in Rwanda through newspaper editorials failed to reach many people.

The most well-known Rwandan radio station was Radio Télévision Libre Mille-Collines (RTLM). This popular station was known for its informal style and comments such as "the graves are half full, who will help us fill them?" during the genocide. Throughout the genocide in 1994, RTLM broadcast dehumanizing propaganda against Tutsis, gave out information about where Tutsis could be found still alive or hiding, and encouraged people to kill them. In the Media trial, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted two of the founders of RTLM, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, of incitement to commit genocide in December 2003. They received sentences of life and 35 years imprisonment, respectively. In paragraph 1031 of the judgement, the Trial Chamber described RTLM as "a drumbeat, calling on listeners to take action against the enemy and enemy accomplices," and in paragraph 486 said that through ethnic stereotyping RTLM promoted hatred and contempt for Tutsis. As an illustration of this stereotyping, and its incitement to violence, the Trial Chamber referred to a broadcast of June 4, 1994, in which the announcer said, "just look at his small nose and then break it," referring to an ethnic stereotype of Tutsi physical appearance.

The activities of RTLM also gave rise to controversies about whether or not such stations should be jammed, or prevented from broadcasting by force. Neither happened to RTLM, but when RTS (Radio-Television Serbia) was bombed in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, some justified the bombing on the basis that it was a propaganda organ for the Milosevic regime. The argument proved very controversial, and most commentators seeking to defend the lawfulness of bombing the RTS incorporated the propaganda claim with the charge that RTS was also part of a military information system.

Criminalization of Incitement and the Harm Principle

It is a foundational principle of criminal law that for something to be criminalized there must be some form of relationship between that conduct and harm to others. A conviction for incitement to genocide does not require that anybody who hears, reads, or is exposed to the incitement be offended by it. Indeed, in many incidences of direct and public incitement to commit genocide, those who are being subject to the incitement agree with the sentiments that are being passed on. Thus, offensiveness alone cannot be a basis for criminalizing incitement. The justification must be found in the harm it causes.

The harm caused by incitement cannot be the harm involved in the actual crime of genocide, however, because the latter crime does not have to be committed for incitement to have occurred. If it did, there would be no appreciable difference between incitement and successful encouragement to commit genocide. Rather, the main type of harm that justifies the criminalization of incitement is that it creates the risk of commission of the final crime of genocide by those incited. Just because the final harm—the actual commission of an act of genocide—has not concretely manifested itself, the criminal law against incitement is not impotent. Subjecting any person (or a group) to an unwarranted risk of harm is, in itself, violating the right of that person or group not to be wrongfully endangered. Although incitement results in a more remote form of harm than that caused by complete acts of genocide, its criminalization is justified on the grounds that it is a form of harm nonetheless.

It can be argued that someone who has tried, but failed, to get a person, a crowd, or even a country, to commit genocide is morally indistinguishable from someone who has successfully encouraged genocide. The only difference between success and failure is the actions of other people, who are responsible for their own actions. Therefore, if the criminal law is to be consistent, it should not criminalize successful incitements and ignore unsuccessful ones.

Criminalizing incitement to commit genocide allows the criminal law to intervene at an earlier stage than the actual attempts to commit the genocidal acts mentioned in Article II of the Genocide Convention. Genocide is an extremely serious, if not the most serious, international crime. It is better to prevent its commission at an early stage than to delay prosecution until after people have been killed. Genocide is usually a crime committed by a number of people at the instigation of smaller number of ringleaders. It usually takes some time to persuade people to commit genocide, with repeated propaganda against the targeted group. Therefore it is a good idea for the law to seek to bring an end to genocidal plans as soon as they have manifested themselves. It is by no means clear that a similar logic should not apply to other serious offenses, namely crimes against humanity and genocide.

Such arguments did not sway the drafters of the Rome Statute, however, so the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction to prosecute those who directly and publicly, albeit unsuccessfully, incite war crimes or crimes against humanity, but is instead limited to the prosecution of specific incitements to genocide. However, incitement to particular examples of war crimes and crimes against humanity may be as serious as some instances of incitement to genocide. If a sadistic person sought to persuade others to drop a nuclear device on a city which would kill 100,000 people, for motives of personal pleasure or in order to persecute, rather than eliminate, a group, the act he or she seeks to incite would not meet the formal definition of genocide. Yet the act being encouraged is not much less serious than certain examples of genocide. There is perhaps some justification in the idea that genocide, with its eliminationist mental element, is simply different from other crimes, and should thus be treated differently. The question is whether genocide is sufficiently different from war crimes and crimes against humanity to justify that only incitements to genocide are serious enough to be criminalized.

Freedom of Speech and Incitement

There is a countervailing interest to the protection of the right of groups to exist that serves to narrow down the scope of the criminal prohibition of incitement. This interest underlies the limitations that the incitement must be "direct" and "public" and that the mental element required is very high. That interest is encapsulated in the right to freedom of speech. Most national human rights documents include a right of free speech. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is an example of such a provision. The right is also protected at the international level, most notably in Article 19 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICTR). The principle of free speech and the desire to prevent racism and genocide pull in different directions. It is not easy to determine precisely where the line between acceptable and unacceptable abridgments of the right of free speech lies.

The drafters of the Genocide Convention were mindful of this difficulty. The United States, for example, was uncertain about the need for a provision on incitement in the Genocide Convention. United States delegates involved in the drafting of the Genocide Convention pointed to the possibility of using incitement laws to illegitimately stifle the press. Cold War considerations played a role in this debate, for the Soviet Union was a strong advocate of an expansive incitement provision, and the U.S. delegation feared that it would use the provision as an excuse to suppress dissent. A majority of states favored retaining some form of incitement provision, however, and thus a compromise led to Article III(c) being included in the convention.

It does not unduly infringe the right of free speech to criminalize incitement of serious crimes, as the right of free speech, important as it is, has to be balanced with the rights of others. After recognizing the right of free expression, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that the right may be limited in certain circumstances, when such limits were necessary to ensure the rights and freedoms of others. Article 20(2) of the International Covenant requires that states must prohibit "any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence." Direct and public incitement to genocide is incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence, and thus it must fall under these exceptions to the right of free speech. Therefore, the criminalization of direct and public incitement to genocide does not violate the right of free speech.

Incitement to genocide is a narrower concept than racist speech. This makes it very unlikely that a domestic statute criminalizing incitement to genocide along the lines of the Genocide Convention definition could fall foul of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the Media trial, the ICTR engaged in a detailed review of the case-law of the various human rights bodies, and accepted that some balancing of the rights of free speech and the right to freedom from discrimination was necessary. This balancing is done in the Genocide Convention by requiring that incitement be both direct and public for it to qualify as a criminal act.

It is controversial whether or not laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and other hate speech should be part of the law relating to incitement to genocide. They probably do not qualify. The Genocide Convention was not designed to prohibit all hate speech, but to require the prosecution of those who are directly trying to persuade people to kill others with genocidal intent. Hate speech can be the precursor to incitement to genocide. However, such speech, where not accompanied by more direct encouragement to genocide, may be too remote from the harm of genocide to be appropriately included as an aspect of the international prohibition of genocide. Laws against such speech may be justifiable, but they may be better dealt with outside the context of the "crime of crimes," genocide. There is a difference between even ugly propaganda and material that is directly aimed at encouraging people to commit genocide. Nonetheless, the line between the two is not always clear. Manfred Lachs, the Polish delegate to the conference that drafted the Genocide Convention and an international lawyer, noted that creating suspicion around groups by implying that they are responsible for various problems creates an atmosphere in which genocide may occur.

Conduct Amounting to Incitement

Crimes are normally split into two elements: the conduct element (sometimes called actus reus) and the mental element (sometimes called mens rea). Although the two categories are imperfect, they form a useful basis for discussion of incitement. Unfortunately, Article III(c) of the Genocide Convention does not give much detail about what amounts to incitement. For this, we have to look to the way the concept has been interpreted by courts.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has been at the forefront of international interpretation of what amounts to the crime of incitement. The tribunal first attempted to set out examples of incitement in the case of Jean Paul Akayesu, a Rwandan bourgmestre (mayor), who was convicted in 1998 of, among other things, incitement to commit genocide. The basis for these charges was that, in his capacity as a bourgmestre, he had led a gathering over a dead Tutsi and urged those with him to eliminate Tutsis. He then read out lists of names of suspected Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers, knowing that this would lead to the named individuals being killed. His incitement was successful, and he was prosecuted and convicted of incitement, although it might perhaps have been more appropriate to prosecute him for encouragement of the completed crime of genocide. In the case against Akayesu, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda defined conduct amounting to incitement as follows:

speeches, shouting, or threats uttered in a public place or at public gatherings, or through sale or dissemination, offer for sale, or display of written or printed material or printed matter in public places or at public gatherings, or through the public display of placards or posters, or through any other means of audiovisual communication.

In the Media case mentioned earlier, the ICTR picked up on the specific risks that audio communication poses when compared to newspapers or posters. In paragraph 1031 of its judgment, the Trial Chamber said:

The nature of radio transmission made RTLM particularly dangerous and harmful, as did the breadth of its reach. Unlike print media, radio is immediately present and active. The power of the human voice . . . adds a quality and dimension beyond words to the message conveyed.

The Chamber also rightly noted that radio transmission added a sense of urgency to the calls for genocide in Rwanda. That is not to say that the Chamber completely discounted the danger of the print media. In the Media trial, the editor of the newspaper Kangura was also convicted of incitement to genocide for publishing content that was "a litany of ethnic denigration presenting the Tutsi population as inherently evil and calling for the extermination of the Tutsi as a preventive measure."

The Convention is clear that incitement which is not followed by the commission (by others) of genocidal acts must be public for it to be criminal. Only if incitement in private is consummated with actual acts of genocide is it thought serious enough to be criminal. In this latter case, the criminality arises from complicity in genocide, rather than incitement. In the drafting of the Genocide Convention, some participants proposed that private incitement be included, but these were removed as part of the compromise over the inclusion of the crime of incitement at all.

The requirement that incitement must be public is a reflection of the need to balance the criminalization of incitement, which often criminalizes speech, against the right of freedom of speech. In the Akayesu case, the Rwanda Tribunal interpreted the concept of "public" to include two elements: "the place where the incitement occurred and whether or not assistance was selective or limited."

The Rwanda Tribunal's handling of incitement that is accomplished through the use of audiovisual communication raises interesting issues in relation to electronic communication. There may be no reason in principle for differentiating between someone displaying notices in a street and someone posting messages on an open-access internet page if both incite genocide. It may take more time for people to see a message on an internet page than one that is posted on the street, but this should not matter, because liability for incitement does not require that the actual occurrence of genocide. Open access internet pages should therefore be considered a public venue for the purpose of the crime of incitement, although there is no judicial authority on this.

E-mail presents a more difficult question. An e-mail to one person would almost certainly not be public, even though it could be read by other people in the same way that a letter sent by the post can be opened by someone other than the addressee. A message inciting genocide sent to a list of recipients, however, presents a more difficult question. If there are numerous subscribers to the list, some may feel that the public requirement is fulfilled. A relevant comparison might be whether a meeting of, for instance, ten people in a village square would be considered public. On the other hand, if the same ten people met in a private house, would this be considered public? If there are 10,000 or 100,000 subscribers to the list, the public criterion would almost certainly be met. Similarly, it would be difficult to claim that an incitement sent as a "spam" e-mail to millions of people around the globe was not public.

To be prosecuted as criminal, the incitement must also be direct. Vague suggestions or hints are not enough. One reason for this limitation is the need to strike a balance between criminalizing incitement and preserving freedom of speech. Another is to reduce the possibility that frivolous claims arising from misinterpretation might be made against those speaking or writing. Such misinterpretations are not unknown. Charles Manson drew inspiration for his (nongenocidal) killings from the song "Helter Skelter" on the Beatles's White Album.

The directness problem was understood by the Rwanda Tribunal in Akayesu, which said:

The direct element of incitement implies that the incitement assume a direct form and specifically provoke another to engage in a criminal act, and that more than mere vague or indirect suggestion goes to constitute direct incitement.

However, what is or is not direct is a matter of interpretation, and where the line is drawn is thus unclear, as the Trial Chamber in Akayesu continued "incitement may be direct and nonetheless implicit."

Matters are made even more complex by the fact that at different times and places, and in different cultural or linguistic contexts, words take on different implications and meanings. For example, it has become known that the word Endlösung (final solution), when it appeared in Nazi documents, referred to the Holocaust, and that the word Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) meant killing. This was not immediately apparent, however. At least two aspects of the problem of determining directness are worthy of mention. First, in wartime, when many, although not all genocides occur, language mutates very quickly, and in particular, euphemisms frequently gain currency. Many of those euphemisms refer to acts or groups involved the genocide. For example, in Rwanda, Inyenzi, which literally translates as "cockroach," was used to refer to Tutsis by proponents of genocide. Second, directness differs with place, language, and culture. The Rwanda Tribunal understood this, averring in its Akayesu decision that "a particular speech may be perceived as 'direct' in one country, and not in another." Some languages and cultures are more circuitous than others in modes of expression. In addition, the determination of incitement often relies on translated texts of suspect speeches or written articles, and translation itself adds a degree of ambiguity to the possible meanings of the words being used.

These considerations raise difficulties when the people making decisions on guilt or innocence regarding the crime of incitement are from a different cultural or linguistic background to the person being judged. In this instance, the only way to ensure that decisions on incitement are fair is to get expert cultural and linguistic evidence. This occurred in Canada, in the case of Mugesera v. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

Leon Mugesera was an academic who became an official in the Rwandan government. In 1992 he made a speech that many believed to have incited the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He was set to be deported from Canada on the grounds that he had incited genocide in that 1992 speech, but filed an appeal. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal secured a new translation of Mugesera's 1992 speech, and reversed the original deportation order. The court's strongly worded opinion declared that the initial translation and editing of the speech transcript was seriously misleading. To show this, the Court juxtaposed the version of part of the speech used in proceedings against Mugesera in 1996 and 1998, and the one they had before them in 2003.

The first version read:

The fatal mistake we made in 1959 . . . was that we let them [the Tutsis] leave [the country]. [Their home] was in Ethiopia, but we are going to find them a shortcut, namely the Nyabarongo river. I would like to emphasize this point. We must react!

The second version read:

Recently I made these comments to someone who was not ashamed to disclose that he had joined the PL. I told him that the fatal mistake we made in '59, when I was still a boy, was that we let them leave. I asked him if he knew of the Falachas, who had gone back to their home in Israel from Ethiopia, their country of refuge. He told me he did not know about that affair. I replied that he did not know how to listen or read. I went on to explain that his home was in Ethiopia but we were going to find him a shortcut, namely the Nyabarongo River. I would like to emphasize this point. We must react!

The first version omitted parts of the speech that contextualized the statement that the river would be used as a shortcut to return refugees. This implied a stronger link to the later genocide, in which bodies were often thrown into rivers, and suggested that Mugesera was referring to the idea, common in the genocide, that the Tutsis were Ethiopian newcomers to Rwanda. The second translation is considerably less clear on this point. This is not to say that Mugesera's speech could not be interpreted as incitement (many people have interpreted it as such), but the differences in the two translations demonstrate that when euphemistic speech is used, it is not always simple to arrive at a firm understanding of the intended meaning.

These difficulties must not be overstated, however. Sometimes the meaning of a statement is easily determinable. The tone of voice used in the delivery of speeches or transmissions, as well as the context in which the words are used and the reaction of the people who heard them are all relevant clues to meaning. For example, Eliezer Niyitigeka was convicted of incitement to genocide by the Rwanda Tribunal for telling people to "go to work," because it was clear in context that this meant killing Tutsis and was that it was understood as such at the time. RTLM was used during the Rwandan genocide to whip up hatred against Tutsis and tell people where Tutsis could be found and killed. Defendants have tried to take advantage of interpretative difficulties by deconstructing relatively innocuous messages from clear material. In the Media trial, Hassan Ngeze attempted to argue that a picture of a machete that appeared on the front page of Kangura to the left of the question "what weapons shall we use to conquer the Inyenzi once and for all?" only represented one alternative. He claimed that another option, democracy, was represented by a photograph of Grégoire Kayibanda, the former president of Rwanda. The Trial Chamber had little problem responding to this argument, noting "that the answer was intended to be the machete is clear both textually and visually".

Mental Element

The other indispensable part of the crime of incitement is the mental element, which is equally fundamental to the definition of genocide. In the Akayesu case, the Trial Chamber defined the mental element as follows:

[The mental element] lies in the intent to directly prompt or provoke another to commit genocide. It implies a desire on the part of the perpetrator to create by his actions a particular state of mind necessary to commit such a crime in the minds of the person(s) he is so engaging. That is to say that the person who is inciting to commit genocide must have himself the specific intent to commit genocide, namely to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.

Not only must the person intend to persuade others to commit genocide, but he or she must also want the national, ethnical, racial, or religious group to be, at least in part, destroyed. The necessity of finding both these elements remains a subject of debate. Some believe that knowingly persuading another to perpetrate genocide should be enough to qualify an individual for a charge of incitement, even if the inciter does not personally wish to destroy, in whole or in part, the group against whom the genocide is committed.

The offense of incitement was included in the Genocide Convention in order to prevent acts of genocide before they occurred. Prevention by the timely application of criminal sanctions to those attempting to bring genocide about is preferable to international criminal law only entering the picture when genocide is occurring, when it is already too late. It is arguable, however, that the offense of incitement is too narrowly defined to achieve its intended purpose.

SEE ALSO Complicity; Denial; Genocide; Nuremberg Trials; Propaganda; Radio Télévision Libre Mille-Collines; Streicher, Julius; War Crimes


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Robert Cryer