By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 20, 2007
PARIS, April 19 -- European Union officials agreed Thursday to new regulations for combating hate crimes and racism at a time when xenophobia and concern over immigration have been increasing across the 27-country bloc.
"It is an important political signal for the E.U.," said German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, who with justice and interior ministers from throughout the European Union reached agreement in Luxembourg after a six-year effort.
The proposed regulations are subject to the approval of national parliaments, and they allow individual countries latitude in defining some crimes and penalizing offenders. Even so, E.U. officials said Thursday's agreement represented a major milestone in persuading all member countries to fight incitement to hatred or violence based on skin color, race or national or ethnic origin.
"There are no safe havens in Europe for racist violence, for anti-Semitism, for people concretely inciting xenophobic hatred," said the E.U. justice commissioner, Franco Frattini.
The documents urge E.U. nations to impose prison sentences of up to three years for individuals convicted of denying genocide, such as the mass killing of Jews during World War II or the massacres in Rwanda in 1994.The rules would require countries to prosecute offenders in connection with killings that have been recognized as genocides by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
But some political figures said the regulations could undermine freedom of speech, expression and the press. "Attempts to harmonize E.U. laws on hate crimes are both illiberal and nonsensical," Graham Watson, a British member of the European Parliament, said in a statement.
"The proposed list risks opening the floodgates on a plethora of historical controversies -- like the crimes of the Stalinist regime or the alleged Armenian genocide -- whose inclusion could pose a grave threat to freedom of speech," Watson said. "The E.U. has no business legislating on history."
E.U. officials said the new regulations include protections for films, theater, art and historical research.
In the United States, laws protect individuals from slander and libel, but the Constitution generally protects most types of speech no matter how offensive the ideology, including racist and anti-Semitic comments by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups.
Many European countries already have stringent laws banning hate crimes, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. In France, which has some of the continent's toughest laws, anti-immigration presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted of "apology for war crimes" for calling the Holocaust "a detail of history of the Second World War." He faces trial in June on charges of "complicity in justifying war crimes" and "complicity in contesting crimes against humanity."
The proposed regulations would require E.U. governments to impose criminal sanctions against people or groups "publicly inciting violence or hatred . . . directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin." Under the recommendations, conviction on those charges would carry jail terms of up to one year.
E.U. officials rejected pleas from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, former Soviet republics, that denying or trivializing crimes committed under the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin be included in the regulations as requiring penalties.
Human rights organizations criticized the new guidelines as too weak, citing loopholes such as one that would allow states to limit prosecutions in cases likely to disturb public order.