By Sasun Hovhannisyan
On December 22 the National Assembly of France adopted a bill criminalizing the denial of genocides. It will soon be sent to the French Senate’s floor.
This bill was adopted sooner than expected and this in fact is a reaction to the Turkish attempts to increase pressures in the French. It is time that Turkey changed its attitude towards the Armenian genocide and withstand from the strategy of historical denial within its territory as well as internationally. This strategy is not giving any tangible results but alienating Turkey from its allies. Turkey’s attempt to blame the Armenian genocide recognition process on the Armenian Diaspora or local elections does not stand criticism by the fact that countries with little Armenian Diaspora, stronger Turkish communities and allies to Turkey, such as Sweden (in 2011), Poland (2005), the Netherlands (2004), Slovakia (2004), Germany (2005) and many others have passed genocide recognition resolutions. This trend is bound to continue, the Turkish over-reaction to the issue increase the international community’s interest and international public awareness towards the Armenian genocide.
The world is heading towards universal human values, where genocides and violations of human rights have less or no place. Yes, a few hundred years ago the sovereignty of the state was considered as a sacred and inviolable value and massacre of population within the state was considered as an internal issue. But the universal movement towards democracy and protection of human rights, which started just in France, has made humanitarianism as a universal value. In 1915 the Entente countries condemned the 1915 massacres of Armenians as a crime against humanity. And Turkey cannot fight against the pivotal value of the modern world through misrepresenting history and through political menaces. This strategy may lead Turkey to isolationism.
The countering of the freedom of speech to criminalization of the denial of genocides is not appropriate, because the freedom of speech itself is subject to some legal restrictions, including by some articles in the Genocide Convention. The same logic forbids fascistic and racial appeals, the destructive power of which was strengthened by “scientific” arguments several decades ago. Also, freedom of speech can by no means justify the falsification of history and disrespect towards the descendents and victims of millions of Armenians during the First World War.
For decades now the descendents of the victims of the Armenian genocide have struggled against denial of the genocide throughout the world. And the reason of some of the success stories does not lie in their political and economic power, but in the righteousness of their cause. They are acting by “Never again” motto. The Armenian genocide became a precedent for the following genocides, as the Holocaust, Cambodia, Ruanda, and Darfur, the first genocide of the 21st century. The atmosphere of impunity and the absence of condemnation of genocides prepare a ground for a repetition of a new genocide .Many people recall the famous expression of Hitler in 1939 August about the extermination of the Armenians. Then it was already too late as the extermination of the Jews in Europe had started. But before coming to power, in 1931 June, Hitler gave an interview to a German paper where he mocked the massacres of the Armenians and used it as a possible specimen for repetition towards other peoples under different circumstances. I mean to say that the absence of condemnation of genocide and impunity directly hit its prevention in the future. Genocide denier under the circumstances of impunity supports a birth of genocide.
For anyone to believe in the Turkish claims that there are differing sides to the Armenian genocide is as much an outrage as it would be for Germany to say that the work of Jewish scholars, witnesses, and victim testimonies represented merely the "Jewish side" of the Holocaust. To deny genocide victims their history and suffering is tantamount to making them victims again.
Indeed there are many people in Turkey, especially the intellectuals, who do accept that a genocide of Armenians was committed a hundred years ago in Turkey, but on the other hand there is still Article 301 in the Turkish Penal Code, which can penalize anyone accepting the fact of the Armenian genocide. On the one hand, Turkey demands respect of freedom of speech (i.e. understanding under it the denial of genocide), on the other hand, in its own country restricts the same freedom of speech (i.e acceptance of genocide), thus acting as a classical example of an actor of double-standards.
Few, if any, doubt the fact of the Armenian genocide. France reiterated that the issue is about a historical event, the reality of which is a fact. The US debates of the Armenian genocide do not doubt the ample existence of genocidal facts. Every US President sends words of compassion to the Armenian people and descendents of the victims of the genocide. Academicians, political circles, the public in general and most of the states in the US do accept the fact of the Armenian genocide, but under the current situation, due to some political calculations, this has not yet been officially done. But that is a matter of time.
By the example of France, others will recognize the genocide and criminalize its denial. Many states will appeal to Turkey to face its historical past as long as Turkey does not give up its policy of denial. This is a route that former colonial powers of Europe passed. Europe has long ago reconciled with its past and come to terms with the mistakes and/or crimes of some of their predecessors, and sincerely, I think Europe will keep its doors closed to Turkey as long as Turkey does not cross that path. Threats of revenge and sanctions merely downgrade Turkey.
Now Turkey faces a dilemma. On the one hand it can continue its policy of denial, its hostile policy towards Armenia (a proof of which is its blockade of Armenia), thus heading to a stalemate by deteriorating its relations with its allies and further losing its image. On the other hand, it can rise from a denier state to a state committed to universal human values by facing its historical past, by normalizing its relations with Armenia without any conditions, opening borders and establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia. This would mean that Turkey is a mature state and is willing to engage with its neighbours and is not continuing the Armenophobic policies of the Young Turks. Otherwise, so far, the zero policy with neighbours has led to zero results.
Recognition of the Armenian genocide does not threaten the Turkish statehood or its territorial integrity. There is no connection between genocide recognition and territorial claims. In fact, all Armenian Presidents have said so. There is no legal argument either. Genocide recognition cannot result in territorial reparations. This issue is often manipulated by nationalist politicians. Yet, the end of denial will enable the reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, of which both will be the winners.
Sasun Hovhannisyan is President of the French-Armenian Youth Foundation (FAYF), student at the University of Lyon.