Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, obliges states to impose certain restrictions on freedom of speech. The article was the product of a long debate among UN members. Countries from the Soviet bloc and many non-aligned nations, notably Brazil, were keen to include a prohibition on propaganda for war, and also to make it as broadly defined as possible – that is to say to ban not just incitement of war, but propaganda on behalf of war more generally. Western states, by contrast, were rather more reluctant to include the provision, and in so far as they were willing to accept it, wanted to limit it just to incitement. In the end, the West lost the debate. The final wording of Article 20 states clearly: “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.”
In the aftermath of the Covenant, communist countries in many cases enacted suitable provisions in their domestic law. For instance, a Soviet law entitled ‘The Defence of Peace’ stated that ‘war propaganda’ of any sort was a criminal offence. East Germany similarly made propaganda for a war an offence punishable by up to eight years in prison. To this day, many post-communist states retain similar provisions in their law. Moldova’s constitutions, for instance, prohibits incitement to war; Armenia’s constitution bans speech ‘for the purposes of … propaganda for violence and war’; and the criminal codes in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzia, and Latvia similarly ban any ‘advocacy for war’. Some other countries, such as Morocco and Kenya have also enacted legislation to this end. Apart from Germany, however, states in the Western world have not met their obligation under the Covenant.
In the English speaking world, meanwhile, propaganda for war is not only not prohibited, but actually quite respectable, and scarily common. Take, for instance, an article published this week by Foreign Policy magazine, and entitled ‘It’s time to bomb North Korea.’ I wish that I could say that this is an isolated case, but it isn’t. Over the past two decades, the American and British press has published no shortage of articles calling for a military attack on this country or that. To use just the example of the New York Times, in March 2015 it published a piece by John Bolton entitled ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’; in 2012, it printed an article by Michael Doran and Max Boot entitled ‘5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now’; in 2011, it ran several op-eds urging Western powers to intervene in Libya (such as this and this); and of course in 2003, it famously supported the invasion of Iraq. And that’s just one newspaper. It’s a story repeated across the Western media. There must have been hundreds of articles in different outlets urging the bombing or invasion of countries such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
It has been argued that enacting a prohibition on war propaganda as required by the International Covenant is impossible as the term ‘war propaganda’ cannot be properly defined. But this is a poor argument. In the past 15 years, numerous Western states have enacted laws prohibiting incitement to terrorism and in some cases, such as the British 2006 Terrorism Act, even the ‘glorification of terrorism’. Just suggesting that terrorism might on occasion be justified is sufficient to get you locked up in some countries. In Canada, for example, it is a crime to ‘advocate’ terrorism. Yet, you can advocate for war as much as you like.
This is despite the obvious fact that war is far more damaging than terrorism. The number of people killed by terrorists in the past 20 years pales into insignificance when compared to number killed in the wars which states, including those in the Western world, have started. It is a serious crime to advocate for the killing of a few. But advocating for the killing of human beings en masse is quite all right.
Sadly, in the English-speaking world, war propaganda isn’t just respectable; it’s mainstream. It shouldn’t be.