Elections and ethnic violence: election-related violence: the role of dangerous speech.

Author:Benesch, Susan
Position:Proceedings of the One Hundred Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law

This panel was convened at 10:45 a.m., Friday, March 25, by its moderator, Sarah Knuckey of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University, who introduced the panelists: Peter Bartu of the University of California at Berkeley; Susan Benesch of the World Policy Institute; Jeff Fischer of Creative Associates; and Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Justice Initiative. **

Even more than violence, inflammatory speech is a common feature of elections. In many cases, violence and fiery speech come hand in hand, by no coincidence. This juxtaposition gives rise to the case I wish to argue here: inflammatory speech provides opportunities for preventing violence in the context of elections, in which violence is very often related to ethnicity. However, it is critical to define such speech clearly, so that legitimate speech is not restricted. International law focuses on the link between speech and violence. Both human rights law and international criminal law single out forms of incitement for prohibition, but neither body of law defines these forms of incitement in enough detail to distinguish them reliably from other inflammatory speech.

To advance toward the twin goals of preventing election-related violence while protecting freedom of expression, I propose a more fine-grained category than treaty law provides: "dangerous speech," or incitement that is likely to succeed in catalyzing violence. I have developed an analytical framework to identify this dangerous speech, and will conclude by describing it briefly.

Elections tend to foster inflammatory speech because they are tantamount to battles, sublimated to one extent or another. Political speakers exploit and inflame rancor between ethnicities or other groups, to bolster support within their own communities and attack their rivals, sometimes to the point of catalyzing mass violence. Often the goal is to sabotage an election, but violence may be used to influence the result of a vote as well. (1) As Chidi Odinkalu noted in his own remarks on this panel, where elections are peaceful and orderly, the rules are certain and the outcome is uncertain; by contrast, where electoral contestants resort to inflammatory speech and violence, they are often aiming for the reverse, namely, uncertain rules and a certain outcome.

Kenya has seen elections beset by inflammatory speech and violence all too often, most recently and catastrophically in 2007 and 2008. At the time of this Annual...

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