(Remarks prepared for a Canadian Race Relations Foundation Webinar October 6, 2015) by David Matas
We should not incite to genocide or hatred or discrimination or terrorism or war. Neither culture nor religion can justify this incitement.
Discourse which objectively would be characterized as incitement to genocide or hatred or discrimination or terrorism or war is sometimes excused by culture or religion. The defenders of this discourse say that those advocating prohibition of incitement are trying to impose their own cultural or religious values on the speakers.
The answer to this charge is that the prohibitions of these various forms of incitement are universal, global values, endorsed by all peoples, cultures and religions. The inciters are not rejecting the values of other cultures or religions through incitement. They are rather distorting their own cultures or beliefs for the purpose of incitement.
Inciters are power entrepreneurs, attempting to gain power over others by propaganda. For them, distortion of culture or religion become instruments, a means to achieve power.
Prohibitions against all the various forms of incitement I have mentioned are found in the international human rights instruments, endorsed by the international community. For the obligation to prohibit incitement to genocide, there is the United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. For the duty to prohibit incitement to hatred, discrimination and war, I draw your attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
For the obligation to prohibit incitement to terrorism, there is United Nations Security Council resolution 1624 of September 14, 2005. You can find a clear international definition of terrorism in the United Nations Convention on the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism.
Inciters sometimes say in their defense that prohibition of incitement is an attempt to impose foreign, typically Western values on them. For Westerners, the suggestion that the various prohibitions of incitement are Western values being imposed on others has to make our heads spin. The West has been guilty of the most vile war propaganda and incitement to genocide, hatred, discrimination and terrorism in recent memory. Nazism is Western. Fascism is Western. Communism is Western in origin. Colonialism is Western.
Even today we have only to see how all too many in the West slander their refugee or aboriginal or Roma populations to see serious disregard for human rights discourse standards. One can as easily talk of a Western culture of rejection of human rights discourse standards as a Western culture of respect for those standards.
There are elements of respect for human rights discourse standards and violations of these standards which can be drawn from every culture and religion. If incitement to genocide or hatred or discrimination or war or terrorism are disproportionately concentrated today in members of one cultural community or adherents of one religion that does not mean that discourse standards are different in one culture or religion from another.
It is a slur on any culture or religion to say it stands for incitement to genocide or hatred or discrimination or war or terrorism. It shows an exaggerated appreciation of any culture or religion to say that it is the sole owner or source of the prohibitions against incitement to war or terrorism or genocide or hatred or discrimination.
The prohibitions against incitement to war, terrorism, genocide, hatred and discrimination rest on the dignity and inherent worth of the individual. Their foundation is the equality of all humanity. To talk of culturally or religiously based human rights discourse standards is to use a contradiction in terms. Cultures and religions are varied. Human rights discourse standards are uniform.
Indeed to talk of culturally or religiously based human rights discourse standards works to defeat respect for these standards. At any given time, failure to respect human rights discourse standards will be more prevalent amongst members of one culture than another, amongst adherents of one religion than another. Apologists for incitement will often wrap themselves round with the protective cloak of their culture or their religion and claim criticism of the discourse is relativistic, based on a different culture or religion.
To accept the notion that human rights respecting discourse is based on particular cultures or religions is to accept the rejection of human rights respecting discourse based on other cultures or religions. We would create a world of first and second class cultures and religions. Members of some cultures and religions would be expected to respect human rights discourse standards. Members of other cultures or religions would not. Accepting the notion of human rights discourse standards based on culture or religion is a step towards undermining the concept of human rights itself.
The universality of human rights discourse standards does not mean that neither culture nor religion has a role to play. Both culture and religion can and should be a means of implementing these standards.
The universality of human rights discourse standards does not just mean that these standards are acceptable to all cultures and religions. It means further that these standards are drawn from all cultures and religions. Every culture and religion has traditions and beliefs which stands against incitement to war, terrorism, genocide, hatred and discrimination. Cultures and religions can and should draw on their own traditions and beliefs to join the struggle against incitement.
If we are going to combat incitement effectively, the effort must come not just from without. It must come from within. Both the friend and the enemy of human rights discourse standards can be found within every culture and religion. We need to mobilize the friends of respect for human rights discourse within each culture and religion to combat the inciters found within that culture and religion.
What multiculturalism means in this context is that each of us should draw from our own cultures and religions to combat the incitement to genocide or hatred or discrimination or terrorism or war we find within our communities. We cannot leave unchallenged the claims of those who abuse culture or religion to promote incitement that it is they who represent the culture or religion.
The voice of every culture and religion can be a voice for peace, equality, tolerance, human rights, respect and dignity. It falls to each of us to source our own cultural and religious traditions to make that voice heard within our own communities.
Culture and religion are toolboxes which both builders and destroyers can use. We must not leave the tools to the destroyers, the inciters, those egging on hatred, genocide, discrimination, war and terrorism. Each of us has access to the tools of our own culture and belief which we can use to help build communities of respect for human rights.
Cultures and religions become objects of stereotypes. Inciters attempt to manipulate practitioners of their own culture, adherents of their own religion through stereotypes of cultures and religions other than their own. These attacks create a rebound effect, generating acceptance of stereotypes against the religions and culture from which the inciters come, as if the inciters truly represented the culture or religion.
Yet, no culture or religion is fixed. Practices of any culture are not uniform. Interpretations of any religious text can vary. Religions, though metaphysical, are realized through human agency. Assertions of what their culture is, what their religious texts mean must not be left to the inciters. Those inside the culture or religion must not allow their culture or religion to be misappropriated by the inciters.
The effort to combat human rights violating discourse must be the work of both insiders and outsiders. Leaving the efforts to others, the outsiders, is a recipe for failure. Leaving the efforts to outsiders creates an artificial impression of foreign cultural or religious imposition which undermines the advocacy of universality of the standards.
For insiders to assume sole responsibility has the same effect. By leaving the struggle to insiders alone, we create the impression that incitement is an issue for the particular religion or culture alone rather than for us all.
Insiders have a special risk and a special role. Only insiders can be accused of treason or apostasy. Only insiders can speak with authority to what the culture or religion truly is.
Ideally, leadership in the struggle against human rights violating discourse should come from within, from the leaders of the cultural or religious community. Solidarity should come from without. Universality must be more than a word. It must be demonstrated in fact. We who are outsiders should be supporting those in every religious and cultural community who stand against incitement emanating from that community.
Incitement to violations leads to violations. War propaganda leads to war. Incitement to terrorism leads to terrorism. Incitement to discrimination leads to discrimination. Both incitement to genocide and hate propaganda lead to genocide. There is a direct linkage between the abuse of the religious and cultural idioms to propagate terror, war, genocide, hatred and discrimination and the terrorism, war, discrimination and mass killings in which some members of the culture or religion engage.
In some situations, and I see this often in my refugee practice, the opponents in-country of this propaganda emanating from their own culture or religion become primary targets of the propagators. Standing against incitement in a country without respect for the rule of law means you yourself will become a target for the inciters.
In that situation global solidarity is essential, both within and without the culture or religion from which the incitement emanates. We need to cross the cultural, linguistic, geographic and religious divide not just to show the universality of rights and solidarity with the victims but also as a simple practical matter. Whether inside or outside the culture or religion, only outside the country where violations are rampant can there be unequivocal public opposition to human rights violating discourse.
To a certain extent, this problem exists even in countries benefiting from the rule of law. In countries with the rule of law, those opposed to incitement within their culture or religion may not face the risk of physical harm. But in a situation where the discourse of incitement in the culture or religion is prevalent, opponents to the discourse within the culture or the religion may face ostracism and scorn. They risk becoming pariahs in their own communities.
How many of us are prepared to confront our parents, our siblings, our neighbours, our community leaders when they engage in discourse which would be objectively labelled incitement to genocide, hatred, discrimination, terrorism or war? How many of us would hesitate to risk personal relationships in order to stand up against incitement uttered by someone close to us? How many of us would rather leave the confrontation to a stranger?
Yet, the reality is that a challenge from someone from the same community or culture is likely to have more impact on the genocide/ hate/ terrorism/ war/ discrimination promoter than a challenge from someone culturally or religiously remote. It may be easy for an inciter to shrug off outsiders. It is harder to shrug off your own.
I have avoided giving examples partly because it is invidious to give one or two, partly because it would more than exhaust my time and your patience to be comprehensive, but mostly because I am confident that every one participating can think of examples on his or her own. While each of us should be thinking about how we can help others in other cultural or religious communities to address the problem of incitement, primarily we should be thinking of what we can do each in our own cultural or religious community to combat this scourge.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is senior honorary counsel to B’nai Brith Canada.