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Genocide Denial and the Law (Editors’ Note)

2 Comments 🕔20.Feb 2015

This article is part of our Genocide Denial and the Law feature.

Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo credit: Haikik


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of one of Europe’s greatest human tragedies: the massacre and death by expulsion of a million or more ethnic Armenians from their historic homeland in today’s Republic of Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire. The gruesome successor to sporadic waves of anti-Armenian persecutions in the 19th century, most notably the Hamidian massacres, the 1915-1918 killing and forced migrations of Ottoman Armenians is a defining event of the modern world. It created a diaspora that persists to this day and produced a cause célèbre that inspired millions of concerned citizens around the world to engage in impassioned protests on behalf of the Armenian community.

Perhaps most notably, the mass expulsion and killing of ethnic Armenians (as well as similar Ottoman persecutions targeting Assyrian and Pontic Greek populations) touched the conscience of Raphael Lemkin. Starting in 1933, Lemkin, who was then a public prosecutor in Warsaw, spearheaded a campaign to create an international legal framework for the conviction and prosecution of crimes against humanity. His was a deeply moral mission, driven by equal parts outrage and compassion. And, as part of that campaign, Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ to describe the deliberate infliction of harm designed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Moreover, not only did Lemkin coin the term, but he and his allies got an entire world to accept it. His definition of ‘genocide’ was formally adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and has been widely applied to the dark events which began a century ago. As a result of Lemkin’s efforts, outside of Turkey the persecutions of ethnic Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians are commonly called the Armenian, Pontic Greek, and Assyrian Genocides, and are considered similar in kind, if not absolute numbers, to the most famous genocide of all: the Holocaust.

The view inside Turkey is quite different. To this day, the Republic of Turkey denies that the mass killing and deportation of Armenians and other groups were motivated by the intention to exterminate any national, ethnic, racial or religious population. Turkey and others allege that Armenian death totals have been inflated and assign much of the blame for Armenian suffering to decades-long inter-ethnic animosity and the wider horrors of World War I.

Outside of Turkey, this point of view is generally called “genocide denial,” and the fact of its existence is not particularly surprising. Winners and losers, victims and victimizers often see things very differently, and use very different words to describe the same event. However, because ‘genocide’ is a concept born in law, the age-old debate over who gets to define the meaning of historical horror has necessarily become a legal one.

Indeed, in an effort to counter hate speech and conform with recommendations from the European Union, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Greece have all adopted laws that make genocide denial a punishable offense. Moreover, other countries, most notably France, have considered introducing similar laws, and this has spurred fierce debate over the implications of such laws on freedom of speech in Europe and whether any modern nation is in a moral position to throw stones.

The debate over genocide denial and the law is a fascinating one, both timely and timeless. Therefore, in this special CritCom feature, the Editors have brought together scholars of law and political science to discuss the complexities of legislating speech, national conscience, and historical truth.

Focusing on France’s historical struggle with memory laws, Vivian Grosswald Curran elaborates on its impact on the Greek anti-racism bill, passed in September 2014, and the potential challenges it faces internationally for its inclusion of an article that criminalizes the denial of genocide. Referencing Curran, Ioanna Tourkochoriti criticizes the Greek legislation’s implementation of the EU’s Council Framework Decision, which, in effect, would criminalize the contestation of historical truths.

Meanwhile, the official response to the law from Turkey has been surprisingly moderate, as evidenced by Spyros A. Sofos and Umut Ozkirimli. Citing current crises in the Middle East as foreign policy prerogatives for Turkey, Sofos and Ozkirimli welcome this response as a sign of progress with regards to Turkey’s bilateral relations with Europe.

Thomas Hochmann insists that a distinction must be made between “qualified denial of genocide,” which includes an explicit attack on Armenians, and “bare denial of genocide,” which does not and would thus be more difficult to ban.

Finally, Yannis Sygkelos focuses on the definition of genocide to challenge the criminalization of its denial as part of the Greek anti-racism bill. In his view, this particular article stands on very unstable ground, because the denial of the Armenian genocide implies no concrete danger or threat to the offspring of Greek Orthodox populations of Anatolia (unlike the denial of the Holocaust).


This article is part of our Genocide Denial and the Law feature.


  1. 🕔 1:43, 06.Mar 2015

    Rie Cin

    It is not true that , the Republic of Turkey denies that the mass killing and deportation of Armenians and other groups were motivated by the intention to exterminate any national, ethnic, racial or religious population.

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  2. 🕔 5:13, 21.Apr 2015


    Some Facts and Thoughts Regarding the European Parliament’s Resolution on Armenian Genocide Claims

    Turks and Armenians lived together in peace and harmony throughout many centuries. Quite a number of Armenians had important positions in Ottoman administrations. For example, at the end of 19th and at the beginning of 20th centuries, for 28 years the Ministers in charge of the personal budget of the Sultan were Armenians. An Ottoman Foreign Minister was Armenian. There were Armenian members of Parliament, ambassadors and high-level officers.

    During the First World War, responding to an appeal by Tsar Nikola II, a great number of Ottoman citizens of Armenian origin joined the Russian forces invading Eastern parts of Turkey.

    These Armenians, and local Armenian armed groups attacked not only supply roads and storage facilities of the Turkish forces, but Turkish towns and villages as well, killing a great number of civilians including women and children.

    In 1915 Ottoman government, upon the demand of Commanders of the Turkish forces on the Eastern Front, decided to move Armenians living in combat zones to safe places of the Empire. This deportation had started after armed Armenian groups took over control of the city of Van.

    A great number of Turks and Armenians had lost their lives during this period as a result of mutual killings and illnesses. There are various estimations of Armenian casualties. French writer Pierre Loti, in his letter to the French Foreign Minister, asserted that Armenian claims are grossly exaggerated.

    French journalist and writer Jean Schlicklin in his book Angora published in 1922, reports that by the end of 1919, one hundred Turkish villages were burned and their inhabitants massacred by Armenians.

    According to the official records of the Turkish authorities, around half a million Turks lost their lives in this period in the areas of confrontation.

    During the First World War, these confrontations have been presented as Turkish atrocities by allied propaganda agencies, most particularly by the British Propaganda Ministry, Wellington House, practically without any reference to Turkish victims. These wartime propaganda materials are still in use to justify Armenian claims of genocide.

    Ovanes Katchaznouni, the first Prime Minister of Armenia and the Chairman of the Dashnak Party, in a speech delivered in April 1923 at the Congress of the Party in Bucharest, blamed not the Turks, but his own party for wrongdoings during this period.

    The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 sets forth the definition of genocide and specifies the legal authorities qualified to determine which acts could be construed as genocide. Nobody and no institution is authorized to decide which event could be qualified as genocide except those mentioned in the Convention. Therefore, the Armenian claims cannot be justified by the stipulations of this Convention and have not been accepted by a large part of the States or relevant legal authorities.

    British Foreign Office Minister Baroness Meta Ramsey of Cartvale addressing the House of Lords on 14 April 1999 said, “… in the absence of unequivocal evidence to show that the Ottoman administration took a specific decision and action to eliminate the Armenians under their control at the time, British governments have not recognized the events of 1915 and 1916 as “genocide”.

    Sixty nine American historiansincluding Professors. Bernard Lewis, Justin McCarthy, Stanford Shaw and Dankward Rustov published a statement in The New York Times and Washington Post on May 19, 1985, arguing that “…much more remains to be discovered before historians will be able to sort out precisely responsibility between warring and innocent and to identify the causes for the events which resulted in the death or removal of large numbers of the eastern Anatolian population, Christian and Muslim alike.”

    On December 17, 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland violated the right to freedom of speech by convicting Doğu Perinçek, chairman of the Turkish Workers Party, for having publicly denied the existence of any genocide against the Armenian people. The Court pointed out that a consensus was difficult to establish in relation to matters which cannot be historically ascertained with absolute certainty, especially in view of the fact that genocide is a very specific and narrowly defined legal concept requiring a high threshold of proof.

    It is often suggested to Turks to face their history. As a matter of fact, all countries should do that and I believe that in the end, Turks would probably not be among those who are most ashamed of their past.

    Dr. Onur Öymen is retired Ambassador, former Undersecretary of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former M.P. and former Deputy Chairman of Republican People’s Party

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