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Getting away with murder: genocide and politics

April 2013

Mukesh Kapila, Vanessa Pupavac and Rony Brauman introduced a discussion on countries seeming to get away with genocide, chaired by James Thompson


Professor Mukesh KapilaIn January 2012, the French Senate voted for a bill with cross-party support to make it a criminal offence to deny the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. Anyone who ‘outrageously’ questions the official version of events would face a one-year prison sentence. The French Constitutional Court quashed the bill, saying it represented an ‘unconstitutional attack on freedom of expression’. Nonetheless, the European Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia says genocide denial or gross trivialisation should be a crime in all EU member states. As well as France, a number of member states have rejected this, including the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Spain. Their rejection reflects an ongoing dispute about whether historical truths should be treated as legal truths.


Dr Vanessa PupavacConcern over the problem of genocide denial can seem out of proportion to its reality. Some would describe the case of Rwanda as the last genocide of the 20th century, and the case of Darfur as the first genocide of the 21st century. The case of contemporary Nuba and relatively recent events in Srebrenica are also often analysed as related to genocides. The concept of impunity is disputed in many of these examples, and the legal aspects throw up the potential need for new laws, alongside newly evolving human rights norms, as well as the role of the great powers and other global institutions as supposedly standing by and doing nothing (the latter including the UK and the UN). The role of the International Criminal Court, is often contested politically and morally by those on trial there, reflecting a changing balance of power in the world system. 

Dr Rony BraumanIs genocide denial a limit beyond which free speech must not go? What does it really mean to say that certain facts are so true that they cannot be denied? After all, flat-Earthers don’t face jail sentences. Or is it not so much a matter of the truth of the facts themselves but of a greater moral truth represented by genocide, by the Holocaust? It has been argued that it is only through unqualified free speech that we have any hope of reaching the truth. Does this not apply to genocide denial; has humanity already established the truth about that? Are we so sure of that as to allow lawyers to prosecute in the name of that truth?


Some background readings

Misanthropy Without Borders: The International children's Rights Regime, by Vanessa Pupavac, Disasters 2001

Human Security and the Rise of Global Therapeutic Governance, by Vanessa Pupavac, 2005

Framing Post-Conflict Societies: An Analysis of the International Pathologisation of Cambodia and the Post-Yugoslav States, by Caroline Hughes and Vanessa Pupavac, 2005

In the waiting room of the Rwandan genocide tribunal, by Barrie Collins, spiked 26 May 2006

Rwanda journalists jailed for genocide denial launch supreme court appeal, by Owen Bowcott, Guardian 29 January 2012

The End of the Development-Security Nexus? The Rise of Global Disaster Management, development dialogue No. 58, April 2012

See No Evil: How did genocide denial become a doctrine of the internationalist left? by George Monbiot, 21 May 2012

Watch video of discussion, thanks to Dan Clayton the documentary film maker from Leeds for producing this.


Genocide discussion at International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Sponsored by


Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI)This discussion has been sponsored by the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester. The HCRI is inspired by the need to conduct rigorous research and to support postgraduate training on the impact and outcomes of contemporary and historical crises.

The work of the HCRI is driven by a desire to inform and support policy and decision makers, to optimise joint working between partner organisations, and to foster increased understanding and debate within the field. Bringing together the disciplines of medicine and the humanities to achieve these goals, the HCRI aims to facilitate improvements in crisis response on a global scale whilst providing a centre of excellence for all concerned with emergencies and conflicts.

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