Racial but not religious hatred becomes a crime in EU

By staff writers
April 27, 2007

Incitement to racial hatred and xenophobia is to become a crime across the European Union. But after a fraught debate involving significant national differences, attempts to single out religious aggravation and holocaust denial were rejected.

In Britain the EU law will not mean any changes to domestic law because the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act is tougher.

Last week six years of negotiations concluded in Luxembourg with a compromise that struggled to balance freedom of expression with a tough stance on anti-semitism and other forms of racism and prejudice.

Justice ministers from all 27 European Union countries agreed that incitement to hatred or violence against a group or a person that is based on colour, race, national or ethnic origin, would be punishable by a sentence of between one and three years' jail.

Anti-racism campaigners, Jewish groups and Germany, which holds the EU presidency, are concerned that the law neither bans holocaust denial as such, nor Nazi symbols. But free speech and secular groups say that this is appropriate, though they are politically strongly opposed to such things.

"Europe has a special historic responsibility to combat anti-semitism and it is a shame that the final version did not include this [provision]," the European Jewish Congress declared after the decision.

Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Spain and several eastern European countries have laws banning holocaust denial. These laws will still apply. Britain, Ireland and the Nordic countries have always resisted such a law so as not to compromise academic or artistic freedom unless it specifically incites racial hatred.

There is no reference either to the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, which Armenians insist should be recognised as genocide. Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, had made clear it would object strongly to this – indeed it is an imprisonable offence to raise the issue.

The new EU legislation will need to be ratified by some national parliaments. It criminalises "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes ... when the conduct is carried out in a manner likely to incite to violence or hatred against a group or [group] member".

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