One Spark Can Set a Fire: The Role of Intent in Incitement to Genocide

44 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2011

See all articles by Kate Kovarovic

Kate Kovarovic

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2009


The world was introduced to an entirely new method of warfare during World War II: that which was fought with words. Hitler mastered the art of media manipulation, and the world struggled to overcome his capacity to influence the German people. After the war, the international community felt compelled to restrict the type of conduct that had enabled Hitler to so easily gain control of his audiences. However, legal scholars struggled to balance this need with the protection of free speech. Eventually, the Genocide Convention was drafted to explicitly prohibit direct and public incitement to genocide, but not mere hate speech. However, international tribunals were left to interpret the difference between hate speech and incitement to genocide based solely on those cases that came before the court. These courts have identified the speaker’s intent as the distinguishing factor between hate speech and incitement, but have failed to establish a set of guidelines that reliably speak to a person’s intent. This paper seeks to address this deficiency by synthesizing past court decisions and legal articles to provide a clearer definition of intent to incite genocide.

Keywords: genocide, incitement, freedom of speech, human rights, international law

Suggested Citation

Kovarovic, Kate, One Spark Can Set a Fire: The Role of Intent in Incitement to Genocide (December 1, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Kate Kovarovic (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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Washington, DC 20016
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