Holocaust Denial and Free Speech: The European Union Debate

Reference: European Union at the United Nations

Brussels, 20 March 2006: Racism and holocaust denial debated at EU Parliamentary hearing

Racism and holocaust denial were at the centre of a hearing Monday in the European Parliament. The German Presidency of the EU has made the fight against racism a priority and has pledged to revive a stalled European “Framework Decision” on racism and xenophobia. One of the Presidency’s proposals is to make denial of the Jewish holocaust a crime – a move that has prompted a fierce debate.

According to the latest figures by the EU’s fundamental rights agency, racist acts went up between 20% and 45% last year depending on the country. At present all EU members have legislation outlawing racist conduct or incitement to racial hatred. However, the scope varies from country to country and a recent “Eurobarometer” survey indicated that 4 out of 10 Europeans were unaware such legislation even existed.

The lack of a uniform definition of racism is troubling to some. French Socialist Martine Roure, the rapporteur on the issue, said a “common definition of racist and xenophobic behaviour” is urgently needed. This would make it easier to prosecute offences and measure how often they occur.

Holocaust denial: a crime or hurtful freedom of speech?

The German Presidency is clear that they would like to see denial of the Jewish holocaust made a criminal offence. At present the proposed framework decision doesn’t go that far (it would not outlaw Swastikas for example). Last month the UN passed a resolution rejecting any denial of the Holocaust.

Some EU states already have laws making either denial of the holocaust or the showing of Nazi regalia a crime. In Austria last year right wing British historian David Irving was released from jail after serving part of a sentence for denying the holocaust took place.

The issue has real potency as it will impact just how the historical debate but also how national governments deal with neo-Nazi movements. These organisations target not just Jews but any minority group they deem somehow “foreign”.

Martine Roure favours making holocaust denial a crime although at the hearing Stavros Lambrinidis MEP disputed this saying; “I wonder if sending some people to jail for their words would have saved us from the holocaust.”

The European Parliament had a taste of the debate close to home recently when controversial Polish MEP Maciej Giertych published a history booklet that was denounced as anti-Semitic and xenophobic. This led to Parliament’s President delivering a public rebuke to Mr Giertych in the Chamber.

Framework Decision stalled since 2005

The Framework Decision was first proposed in 2001 and aims to ensure that all racist and xenophobic acts are punished. In its original form it envisaged the extradition and surrender of those suspected of such acts. It also aims to encourage judicial cooperation across the EU. The text of the Decision has been frozen in the Council of Ministers since 2005.

The European Agency for Fundamental Rights was founded in Vienna at the start of this month. It takes over from the racism monitoring centre that had existed before. Its role is to monitor and combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism and other related acts. It supports the introduction of the Framework Decision.

March 21 marks “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” in honour of the Sharpeville massacre of black South Africans by the Apartheid government in 1960.