Legislating Truth: The Paradox of the French Armenian Genocide Bill

By Cailean Maclean

© Reuters
Last Tuesday saw the French National Assembly pass a law banning the denial or minimization of the Armenian Genocide, a move which has immediately attracted the diplomatic ire of Turkey; the state successor to the regime which committed said actions. Some commentators have seen this as a deeply cynical ploy, an election year attempt to engage the 500’000 strong French-Armenian population. Others see this as an attempt of those opposed to Turkish membership in the EU to further differentiate and marginalize the country from the European community. 

Regardless of the French political calculations behind this vote, it brings forth numerous issues of direct and relevant interest to the personal rights of European citizens. National attempts to control historical debate through government fiat ultimately do the disservice of curtailing free speech, establishing competing legal “truths” and politicizing the suffering of victims rather than recognizing them on their own merits.  

Legislating official history is not a new phenomenon in Europe. Many countries including Germany, France and Austria ban Holocaust denial or the display of Nazi symbols or memorabilia. Many of these laws were enacted in good faith in regards to the political circumstances of post-war Europe. The immediate concern for all these nations was to avoid the minimization of the catastrophic crimes associated with the holocaust and the responsibility shared by European nations.

There are a number of factors which differentiate laws against Holocaust denial from the French Armenian Genocide law. European laws against Holocaust denial stem from not only a recognition of the extent of the crimes but also from an internal need to limit a return to the political and racial thinking which brought Europe to war. The Armenian genocide, while a horrific event central to the world’s Armenian population, is not an event with serious political ramifications for the stability of the French state and European peace. The fact that the Armenian genocide alone was singled out betrays a political motivation. History is filled with numerous actions and mass killings which could feasibly be defined under the term of genocide. In modern days one can look at the Ukraine’s claims of genocide against the Soviet government of the 1930s or ethnic cleansing in Greece and Turkey or expulsions of Germans following the Second World War. Stretching further back into history shows many examples of state led crimes against minorities, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and ethnic groups in nearly all regions of Europe. Turkey, in a retaliatory measure, has called attention to the actions of the French state against Algerian nationalists during its colonial occupation and wars in Algeria. Utilizing such serious historical issues for political tit-for-tat games devalues the true recognition of the victims of historical wrongs.

The Holocaust and Armenian genocide debate is further differentiated by the context.  The primary roots of Holocaust denial are forces threatening to European social stability, including the rehabilitation of European fascism, anti-Semitism, and opposition to the state of Israel on these grounds. While Turkish nationalists and others seek to deny genocide for anti-Armenian, nationalistic, or simply prideful reasons, the primary academic debate turns on the legal usage of the word “genocide” rather than a full denial of Turkish war crimes against the Armenian population during and following the First World War. Some Armenian critics even feel that the French law could stifle attempts to raise awareness of the issue in Turkey due to a wave of nationalist indignation.

This political definition of history has created an unusual tension regarding European law. France is not alone in this regard. Turkey too has taken a stance on the matter in its domestic codes. Current laws exist and are enforced against “offending the state”, including publicly raising Turkish involvement in the genocide.  Should the bill be signed by President Sarkozy and go into force, there will be two dueling laws on the matter of the genocide in Europe. Denial would be illegal in France while simultaneously avowal of it could be illegal in Turkey. Should Turkey someday join the EU, two member states will have legislated opposing historical truths into existence making every debater on a historical matter a criminal in one or more countries.  

These issues become more then a legal and political curiosity when placed inside the increasingly interwoven European judicial sphere. The European Arrest Warrant System (EAW) allows for the quick extradition for crimes perpetrated within one European state to another. The EAW system was tested in regard to genocide denial crimes with the 2008 Fredrick Töbin case. A dual German-Australian citizen who ran a Holocaust denial website out of Australia was issued a German EAW request upon his arrival in London. Upon review, the UK refused to extradite Töbin on the basis that British law did not recognize denial as a crime. Other countries do, however, and Germany has pledged to re-attempt extradition proceedings in the future. Töbin has since returned to Australia but any return to a civil law country which recognized the crime of denial: France, Austria, Belgium or others could see him land in a German court.

World history is filled with numerous examples of crimes against groups, religions, and peoples; memories which are vigorously championed by the aggrieved and ignored or hidden by the complicit governments (or their descendents). Historians, politicians, and indeed ordinary regardless of their ethnicity and background have a moral obligation to promote the memory of events which should never be repeated or forgotten. Using the coercive power of the state, however, is a step in the wrong direction.  Opening the door to state legislatures writing and enforcing legal and historical debates of outside countries through fines and prison terms calls both intellectual independence and the status of victims into question. 

About the Author:

Cailean MacLean is a 2011/2 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. He recently graduated from the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies with an LL.M. in International Law and Relations.

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