Council of Europe comes out against Ukrainian ban on Nazi and Communist symbols

Law is ‘attempt to re-write country’s history,’ and is a ‘violation of freedom of expression,’ according to Holocaust museum, rights groups.

December 22, 2015 02:56
2 minute read.

A member of Hungary's far-right Jobbik party, delivers a speech to hundreds of far-right supporters during a rally against the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Budapest May 4, 2013. . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Council of Europe has come out against a de-communization and anti-Nazi law passed by Ukraine earlier this year, calling it incompatible with European standards.

The controversial measure – which was condemned by Jewish organizations as well as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – came into force in May and criminalizes propaganda on behalf of the German Nazi and Soviet Communist regimes.

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It was approved alongside another bill extending government recognition to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an ultra-nationalist faction that sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state and which engaged in anti-Semitic violence.

While the law’s prohibition on the use of Communist and Nazi symbols does not apply within academic contexts, it does prevent broadcast media from airing material that “justifies the fight against participants in the struggle for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century,” according to a translation of the law published by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

According to the Venice Commission, a body that advises the Council on matters of law, despite pursuing a “legitimate aim,” the Ukrainian law “is too broad in scope which can lead to obstructing free expression or preventing political parties from running in elections,” “does not comply with European standards” and should be revised.

“Under the law, journalists may face an undue threat of criminal prosecution, effectively allowing the state to censor the media and even shut them down should they engage in ‘propaganda,’” the Council said in a statement summarizing it’s legal opinion.

Calling for the definition of propaganda to be refined so as to “imply something more than the mere expression of opinions and ideas,” the Venice Commission also criticized what it saw as inconsistent approaches to Nazi and Communist symbols and “disproportionate” sanctions on violators of the law.


“A mere display of a symbol or use of a name should not result in imprisonment,” the commission stated.

Holocaust denial and the use of Nazi symbology are both banned in Germany and are punishable by jail time.

Over 900 villages with names related to communism or communist figures are required to be renamed under the law.

The banning of the Ukrainian communist party by Kiev has come under fire, with Amnesty International last week calling it “a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and association and should be immediately overturned.”

Such laws should be “a measure of last resort in exceptional cases,” the Venice Commission stated.

The far right Svoboda party, a neo-Nazi faction that was prominent during last year’s Maidan Revolution, has rapidly faded in political importance but remains legal under the current law.

Criticizing the bill just after its passage in April, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum asserted that it was an “attempt to legislate how the history of Ukraine should be discussed and written, especially regarding the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.”

“As Ukraine advances on its difficult road to full democracy, we strongly urge the nation’s government to refrain from any measure that preempts or censors discussion and politicizes the study of history,” the Washington-backed Holocaust memorial organization entreated.

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