The timing for today’s blog is not what I would have wished. Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day earmarked for remembrance of the Nazis’ mass killings of Jews, Roma, and other unwanted groups, and of other state-sponsored genocides in modern history.
The reason I’m writing about genocide today is different. It’s a response to the French Senate’s vote earlier this week to criminalize denial of officially recognized genocides.
As RFE’s Charles Recknagel pointed out, the bill – which President Sarkozy says he will soon sign into law – is not specifically about the Armenian genocide, although that’s how most media have reported it. The law makes it a crime for French citizens to deny an act officially recognized by the French state as a genocide.
My first thought is to wonder how one legally defines “denial.” My second thought is, no state should have the right to create truth by decree: “Officially, X occurred. X was a terrible thing. Therefore, denial of X should be a crime.” This is intellectual Stalinism, with the best of intentions of course. I think this law is uncivilized and unworthy of the French tradition of rationalism. Whether it will ease or exacerbate relations between Turkey and Armenia, I don’t know, and although I have a good deal of sympathy with the Armenian point of view, I still think the law should be scotched.
This is where I start to get uncomfortable, because the same line of argument must lead me to support dismantling of all laws against genocide denial, including the Nazi Holocaust. Unlike the Armenian case, the Jewish Holocaust touches me personally, since my father’s family were Hungarian Jews who came to America in the early 20th century. I don’t know of any family members who died in the Holocaust, but I’ve been told that a distant relative lived through World War II in Budapest.
A number of European countries have laws criminalizing denial of the Nazi Holocaust or other genocides. The professional Holocaust denier David Irving is a despicable writer. I felt hardly a pang of sympathy when an Austrian court sent him to jail, yet at the same time I could not bring myself to feel that justice had been done.
There is a legal exit to this conundrum of what do when freedom of expression laws seemingly permit speech meant to damage another person’s or group’s dignity. It’s to punish speech when it demonstrably contributes to violence or discrimination. The EU does this in its law on racism and xenophobia. The 2007 decision makes certain kinds of “intentional conduct” punishable in all EU member states (although there is a partial opt-out).
This conduct may include: “Publicly inciting to violence or hatred, even by dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other material, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.” (My italics.)
Regrettably, the law also punishes “Publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising” acts recognized as genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes by the International Criminal Court and the Nuremberg Tribunal. Surely the first clause is more than sufficiently robust to punish the most atrocious genocide deniers, by linking speech to concrete, intentional acts? There is no need to open a legal can of worms by banning public expression of opinion, which is what the second clause does.
The photo shows an old view of Sivas, a city in Turkey whose Armenian inhabitants were expelled in 1915. Source: www.houshamadyan.org