Timothy Garton Ash: In France, Genocide Has Become A Political Brickbat
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.
Next Monday the French Senate is to vote on a bill that will criminalise denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915, along with any other events recognised as genocide in French law. The bill has already passed through the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament. The Senate should reject it, in the name of free speech, the freedom of historical inquiry and article 11 of France's path-breaking 1789 declaration of the rights of man and citizen ("the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights …").
The question here is not whether the atrocities committed against the Armenians in the last years of the Ottoman empire were terrible, or whether they should be acknowledged in Turkish and European memory. They were and they should be. The question is: should it be a crime under the law of France, or other countries, to dispute whether those terrible events constituted a genocide, a term used in international law? While not minimising the suffering of the Armenians, the celebrated Ottoman specialist Bernard Lewis has in the past disputed that precise point. And is the French parliament equipped and entitled to set itself up as a tribunal on world history, handing down verdicts on the past conduct of other nations? The answers are: no and no.
In a further twist, the bill would criminalise not just the "contestation" of the Armenian genocide but also "outrageous minimisation" of it. As Françoise Chandernagor of the Liberté pour l'histoire campaign points out, this introduces a concept vague even by the standards of such memory laws. If Turkish estimates of the Armenian dead run at around 500,000 and Armenian ones at 1.5 million, what would count as minimisation? 547,000? And should the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, be arrested for such "minimisation" on his next official visit to France? (The bill envisages a fine of €45,000 and a year's imprisonment.)..
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