Observations from Armenia

Just recently I returned from a three week trip to Armenia. It was my sixth visit in 11 years – some for work purposes, some for pleasure – the most recent one falling in the latter category. Whatever the occasion, I have treated each and every one of those visits as an opportunity to observe life around me, how things work (and don’t), people, their attitudes, viewpoints and behaviour. This trip was no different.

I saw many things in Armenia this time around. Perhaps every time I visit, I am a little bit more mature. Or perhaps every time I visit, Armenia is a bit more mature. I think this time at least, it was both.

I must admit, a few things I would have preferred to not see. The beggars on the streets – almost entirely non-existent on my more recent trips – they’re back. Not in large numbers but I encountered a few. I helped some, more out of a desire to get rid of them and I avoided others. It was more unpleasant than painful seeing them. With every visit you become able to take the emotion out of certain things, I was reminded.

I saw materialism – not a new phenomenon but something I think I had refused to see before, or I should say, to consider as an almost defining characteristic of a considerable part of Armenians living in Yerevan today. A café around Opera House called ‘Café Rich’, a men’s apparel shop on Northern Avenue called ‘Billionaire’ not to mention all the luxury brands that have mushroomed all over Yerevan. It felt like some of these names expressed aspirations unattainable for most of Yerevan’s residents.

In other names I saw the urge to embrace the foreign, the not-Armenian. Whether it was Santa Fe café or the luxurious Moskvichka supermarket (which means a woman from Moscow, we discovered), I couldn’t help but think that on some level these as well represented aspirations – aspirations to leave and be in those ‘better-off’ places. Perhaps I am wrong. I certainly hope so. Perhaps they are simply signs that more than ever Yerevan is embracing the world around it after seven decades of living behind an Iron Curtain.

On the second day after our arrival, sipping coffee and catching up with a friend outside Marriott Hotel on Republic Square, I saw a group of about 20 young women marching with posters and chanting slogans against non-combat deaths in the Army. They were not too loud but their voices could be heard. They passed by quickly but it was impossible to not notice them. They were like a cool breeze on a very warm summer afternoon. Instant, unexpected and very refreshing.

I follow developments in Armenia closely and I have proudly followed the emergence of civic activism in Armenia in recent years. Encountering some of those activists was one of the best experiences I had on this trip.

Perhaps from that point onwards, it was impossible to not see the change happening in Armenia. But the change I saw this time was not simply in the sheer number of new cafés, restaurants, shops and buildings. I was grateful for seeing young activists at work, for seeing less ‘chi gareli’ (i.e. it’s not possible – a common response you could get in Armenia as a customer asking for something) and a more positive attitude to getting things done, as well as a new level of professionalism.

On the day we left Yerevan, a young Army doctor died after he was beaten severely by the bodyguards of an oligarch at the Harsanakar Restaurant Complex. The reaction to this incident – although not large in scale – was nevertheless impressive. Candle light vigils outside the restaurant, protests outside the oligarch’s resident. Yet again a handful of activists and yet again they were impossible to not notice even as I was following their acts all the way from Sydney.

Change has started in Armenia and change is impossible to stop or reverse. We can influence the speed with which change is achieved and shape its course but we can’t stand in its way. It is up to all of us, in whichever part of the world we live in, to decide what role we would like to play in the wave of change our homeland is experiencing. More on this later …


Choosing to be Armenian in Adelaide

Originally published in Armenia
25 February, 2012
By Houry Mayissian

If you happen to be in Adelaide on Australia Day this year, make sure you don’t miss Noah’s Ark resting on a snow-capped Mount Ararat “parading” through the city’s streets.

“What place does Noah’s Ark have in Australia Day Parade?” you are probably asking yourself and rightfully so.

William Saroyan once famously declared it only takes two Armenians to create a new Armenia. And in Adelaide a handful of Armenians seem to be doing just that as I had the pleasure to discover during a recent trip.

The Armenian community of Adelaide is estimated at 200 only. Yet, its achievements have been quite remarkable for its size. Next to New South Wales, South Australia is the only other Australian state to have recognised the Armenian Genocide. A plaque at the city’s Immigration Museum pays tribute to the Armenian Genocide victims of the Ottoman Empire.

The President of the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia, Elena Harrison, has been literally on the hunt for Armenians since her arrival from Armenia in 2009.

“I signed up for salsa classes recently because I heard there is an Armenian girl who goes there. I’ve been three times already but she hasn’t shown up yet,” she says laughingly.

I meet more community members during an Armenian Christmas celebration hosted by Harrison and her husband on a warm, summery January 6. It is an evening of many things non-traditional for an Armenian Christmas, yet typical of an evolved, 21st century Armenian-ness that is able to embrace all things new and different.

There is the Armenian pilaf and barbeque with soft drinks and beer. There is also Armenian brandy and music, Australian sausages and lamington. But most interesting of all, there are Armenians from Uruguay, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and elsewhere with their own unique stories and backgrounds but with one thing in common – their choice to be Armenian.

There is Sergio Javier from Uruguay, who has recently started learning Armenian with the help of friends in the community and a small pocket dictionary. “Genatset” (“to your health”) he cheers as we sip Armenian konyak and toast to the New Year. He has just learnt a new word.

Then there is Joanna Ignoyan with her four children, who speak the most impeccable Armenian I have encountered in kids their age in the Diaspora.

“When did you last visit Armenia?” I ask 10-year old Erik Avetisian as he tries to sell me raffle tickets. “In 2007,” his elder sister, Arevik, jumps in noticing the confusion on her brother’s face.

“What do you like most about Armenia?” I ask next. “The snow,” he boasts confidently this time wearing his Armenia T-shirt with the republic’s Coat of Arms.

And of course there is Alec Balayance, one of the founders and former presidents of the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia, passionately arguing the case for further Diasporan involvement in ensuring Armenia’s sustainability and growth.

Formed in the 1960s, the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia has been the main organiser of Armenian life in South Australia. Most recently, the association became one of six other community organisations to receive an invitation from Multicultural South Australia to participate in the annual Christmas Pageant. Community members marched some 3.5 kilometres in the city’s streets dressed in traditional Armenian costumes.

In March, the Association is organising an exhibition on Armenian culture and history at the Immigration Museum in Adelaide. For a period of three months, visitors to the museum will learn about Armenia and the Armenian people through images, videos, costumes and artifacts. The exhibition will also feature a section on the Armenian Genocide, hopes Harrison.

Meanwhile, the community is busy making the final preparations for Thursday’s parade. The Ark, made of cane frame covered in tissue paper, painted and mounted on a steel frame on a bicycle wheel, is bound to turn some heads at one of the largest Australia Day celebrations nation-wide. There will be miniature animals like giraffes and elephants coming out of the Ark. And of course, the cherry on top, there will be Armenian flags along with community members dressed in traditional Armenian costumes, making a very Armenian statement in this city far removed from Armenian life.

On the Genocide Conference in Yerevan, H.Res.252, and the Armenian Government

Originally published in The Armenian Weekly
January 6, 2011
By Houry Mayissian

The Armenian government recently hosted an international conference on genocide prevention, condemnation, and elimination in Yerevan. Genocide scholars from around 20 countries gathered in Yerevan in what could be considered as one of the Armenian government’s rare acts aimed at proactively seeking international acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide. While we can’t but applaud this initiative, we also can’t help but say it was a belated effort and not enough on its own.

The conference was helpful in inviting public attention to the issue not only in Armenia and the diaspora but also internationally, given the level of international participation in it. Once again, it dealt a blow to denialists in Turkey and abroad by providing an opportunity for high caliber genocide scholars of different nationalities to throw their support behind the truthfulness of the Armenian Genocide. It was a slap in Turkey’s face and its attempts to undermine the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide through such attempts as setting up a historians’ commission to discuss historical issues between the two nations.

However, the initiative was belated, because while successive Armenian governments since Robert Kocharian’s presidency at least have declared that recognition of the Armenian Genocide is on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda, this can be considered as the first major proactive (emphasis on the word proactive) initiative of its kind undertaken by Yerevan.

More than coming late, however, this conference is not enough effort on the part of the Armenian government to show that it takes this matter seriously. Notwithstanding public declarations on the importance for international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, little government action has been seen on this front so far. Yes, almost all official dignitaries, diplomats, and foreign government officials who visit Yerevan are taken to the Genocide Memorial in Dzidzernagapert. Yes, the issue has been raised on a few occasions in presidential speeches to the international community, including at the UN. However, little has been seen or at least made public in terms of consistent and serious efforts to pursue genocide recognition.

Robert Kocharian’s administration at least smartly avoided falling in the cunning Turkish trap of “leaving history to the historians” by rejecting a proposal for setting up a commission of historians that first surfaced in a letter by then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in April 2005. It’s silly to say Sarkisian was not smart enough to avoid the trap. By then, the idea had been discussed so much that no one in their right mind could deny its implications on the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Sarkisian did it anyway, though. In 2009, he signed the infamous Turkish-Armenian protocols, one of the stipulations of which was the formation of exactly such a commission. His reasons? Unprecedented international pressure, continued blockade and economic isolation, continued deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabagh peace talks, coupled with intense militarization in Azerbaijan, awareness of growing Turkish influence in the region, and perhaps to some extent a gradual shift in Russia’s attitudes due to military and energy deals with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

With the failure of the protocols in the face of consistent Turkish efforts to tie Armenian-Turkish normalization to the resolution of the Karabagh conflict and what Sarkisian has started to consider as a lack of sincerity towards reconciliation in Turkey, the genocide conference could have signaled renewed effort on behalf of the Armenian government to assure that it stands on moral high ground when it comes to this issue. Could have, but as far as I’m concerned, it did not.

In fact, only a few weeks after the international conference in Yerevan, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) started pushing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on H.Res.252, a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The resolution had previously been adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2010. The ANCA assured that Pelosi had the opportunity and the majority to schedule a vote on the resolution just before the House adjourned its session for the year.

In the final days of the sitting, Washington witnessed one of the most intense confrontations between the Turkish and Armenian lobby groups in history.

On the Armenian side it was the ANCA, the Armenian schools, the church, the individuals in our community, anti-genocide activists, and Armenian celebrities the like of Kim Kardashian and Serj Tankian. Advocating the Turkish “cause,” however, was a state-sponsored lobby machine channeled through such influential mediums as the Congressional Turkish Caucus.

Moreover, Turkish pressure was exercised directly by Turkish government officials. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called his American counterpart Hillary Clinton, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, both with the intention of getting senior U.S. officials to pressure the House Speaker into avoiding a vote on the resolution. The Turkish ambassador in Washington, Namik Tan, used every tool at his disposal, including Twitter, to lobby against H.Res.252. All of this demonstrates the vigilance of the Turkish administration on issues related to the Armenian Genocide, and their preparedness, time and again, to go above and beyond in their efforts to block any measure that might lead to its recognition.

The question that begs itself: Where was the Armenian government? Where was our ambassador in Washington when Armenian students, clergy, community members, and celebrities were working day and night sending emails, calling Pelosi’s office, publicizing the issue to fellow Armenian Americans and American citizens at large? Was a statement of support deemed too much? Where was Eduard Nalbandian? Was he worried that if he were to publicly support the resolution and ask the American administration to take the right stance on this issue normalization efforts with Turkey would go even further downhill? If so, why make declarations on the need to recognize the Armenian Genocide in general? Why organize a conference in Yerevan? Whatever the calculations of the Armenian government were, and it is not too difficult to guess them, the bottom line is it missed yet another perfect opportunity to translate statements into action on the issue of genocide recognition.

That being said, it is never too late. More resolutions dealing with Armenian Genocide recognition will be presented to the U.S. Congress and legislative bodies in countries across the world in the future. It is not unreasonable to expect that while the groundwork is done by Armenian lobbying organizations, the Armenian government should throw its weight behind these efforts even if at the ambassadorial level only. This would provide moral support to our activists. It would demonstrate to foreign governments that this is Yerevan’s fight, too, and not just that of the Armenian people. And by doing so, add a new kind of legitimacy to the struggle for genocide recognition.

Human Trafficking in Armenia: Can the Diaspora help?

As activists for women’s rights in Armenia observe their “16 Days of Activism to Stop Violence against Women” campaign (November 25-December 10), it seemed timely and appropriate to start this new blog with a topic that has been of interest to me for quite a while now but regarding which I’ve felt helpless and limited in my ability to act. While the campaign generally refers to domestic violence against women in Armenia, taken in a broader sense, violence against women can also refer to another dangerous phenomenon – the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation purposes.

In international reports, including US State Department reports, on this type of organized crime, Armenia has continuously been identified as a source of trafficking of women to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for forced labor but mostly for sexual exploitation purposes. Having spent two years of my life in the UAE, I developed great interest in this issue. However, in a country like the UAE with virtually no channels for public involvement in such taboo issues, there was not much I could do but read about the problem.

According to the US State Department reports (http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/), the number of victims identified by the Armenian government stood at 60 in 2009 and 34 in 2008. However, in the absence of concrete figures for previous years, it is difficult to interpret these numbers. Do they mean trafficking activity increased during the one year period. Or are they indicators that the Armenian government was more persistent in its efforts to address the issue and assist victims. Or maybe both? What about claims that some government officials are themselves involved in the business of selling Armenian women?

Today, as I read about the campaign organized by a coalition of seven Armenian NGOs and the sad story of 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan recently beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law, I can’t help but feel equally helpless in the first instance. However, even as a Diaspora Armenian who does not have the luxury of helping to make a change directly on the ground, there must be something we can and should do regarding this and other societal problems in Armenia. Our obligations towards Armenia go beyond donations that would help rebuild vital infrastructure. In order for these rebuilding efforts to have meaning, we need to help address the country’s societal problems as well as a basic step to introduce positive change towards an empowered society in the future.

The root causes for trafficking could be many. Topping the list is economic deprivation. Whatever the cause, however, what distinguishes trafficking from voluntarily engaging in prostitution is the fact that its victims are kidnapped against their will, often with promises of respectable jobs as nannies, in cafes or shops in the destination countries. Reality of course turns out to be different. They are stolen of their identification papers, beaten and forced into sexual slavery in the host country. Therefore, preventing the problem of trafficking can start with simple steps that help raise awareness on this phenomenon across the country.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Armenian government in recent years to amend legislation, raise awareness and help victims, more is needed. And we don’t need to be living in Armenia to do it. Awareness raising about this problem in the Diaspora is as important as it is in Armenia. Armenian organizations and Armenian media in the Diaspora should play a vital role here. We need to stop looking at these problems as taboo issues and change our ostrich policies. Public discussion in the Diaspora on these issues can serve as a pressure mechanism on the Armenian government to enhance its efforts to tackle the problem; it can empower local media, organizations and individuals to speak louder and demand more.

A final thought. Some international organizations that seek a change in attitude towards human rights issues in member countries revert to conditionality: the concept of making financial aid dependent on government efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country. It may sound difficult or idealistic but is it impossible to imagine making at least a small portion of the humanitarian assistance channeled by Diaspora organizations to Armenia conditional on improvements in human rights issues?

The call for Diaspora’s assistance is coming from Armenia already. For more, please read: “In the name of Zaruhi: A call to action in Armenia and Diaspora”

Speaking to be Heard: An Interview with Vartan Oskanian

Below is an interview with Armenia’s former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, conducted via email about his book, Speaking to Be Heard.

Originally published in The Armenian Weekly
June 3, 2009

Houry Mayissian: What led you to prepare Speaking to Be Heard?
Vartan Oskanian: Even when I was in office, I was conscious that a public official—elected or appointed—has a responsibility to communicate with the public, especially in a country like ours, where every event, every agreement, every international organization, everything is new. It is a learning process for all of us, and it’s important to share that process with our public so that expectations are realistic. At the same time, in the sphere of public and foreign policy, I have always believed that the Armenian perspective needs to be heard from every possible podium, in every possible forum. Each of these speaking opportunities was a chance to explain our positions, our limitations, our expectations, our policies. So, when you live your life that way for 10 years, at the end you realize there is a body of work there that represents a 10-year evolution. And I wanted that to be available as a historic record of how our history and our policies have evolved.

And I had another reason. I am honored to have served in that capacity for a decade, and in this small way, I wanted to share my experience with readers.

H.M.: As the minister of foreign affairs of Armenia for 10 years, you delivered a substantial number of speeches articulating Armenia’s positions on a wide range of national and international issues from various influential platforms, such as those of international or regional organizations, important conferences, and universities. The book features only a selection of these speeches. How was the selection process made and what does it reflect?
V.O.: There is much more included than excluded. There were some speeches that we did not have saved, some which were never recorded or transcribed. There were also some that were repetitive. In the process of explaining policy, it is important to deliver the same message consistently. As a result, sometimes within the space of several weeks, there were several similar speeches. That’s fine, when you’re presenting them to different audiences. It’s not fine when a reader is reading them.

H.M.: In your book, you underline the importance of these speeches in getting across Armenia’s positions and interests on various issues. What has guided your speech-writing throughout?
V.O.: I have always been conscious that I have two audiences—domestic and international. Actually, three audiences—the [Armenian] Diaspora too. So, I have always been careful to frame issues in a way that is relevant and understandable to all of them, because in today’s world, there is no international border for news and information. Everyone hears, reads everything. Even in the case of the international audience, there are two segments—those who understand and support our positions, and those who, to put it mildly, don’t. There again, a speech has to be aimed at all those segments, and has to use the opportunity to gain support and understanding.

H.M.: You are known as one of the architects of the policy of “complementarity,” which has been the basic principle guiding Armenian foreign policy over the last decade. In your book, you outline the difference between this and the policy of balance adopted by the first government. Can you elaborate?
V.O.: It’s a nuanced difference, but one that frees you to act more boldly. When we were applying a policy of balance, it meant balancing one act among different countries. But I wanted to achieve the maximum for Armenia, out of our various relationships, and this led me to think that we have to complement what we do with one country with what we can do with another. The nuance here is that you are doing similar things with rivals in the same area—in security, economy, energy. You are doing more with more partners, always trying not to exacerbate their differences, not necessarily to do the same thing with one as with the other, but to do what is possible with each, to complement that which is being done with each.

H.M.: In your introduction to the book, you emphasize the importance of multilateral diplomacy in Armenian foreign policy. An integral part of this policy is membership in regional and international organizations (such as the CoE, OSCE, CIS, partnerships with NATO, and the EU) which serve as opportunities for not only pursuing national interests beyond borders but also for lesson-drawing through interaction with the representatives of other states. As a newly independent country with little diplomatic and political experience, what were some of the important lessons Armenia drew from its membership in these organizations?
V.O.: Not only did we have little diplomatic or political experience, we also had limited resources. So, if we only had 10 or later 20 embassies around the world, it is difficult for us to communicate with the other 180 capitals around the world. The first thing international organizations made possible was direct contact. It was during those annual or semi-annual meetings that we could converse with ambassadors of those other countries and make sure they understood our perspectives, our policies, our positions. We also learned a very important lesson about multilateralism, that is, if you want others to be interested in your issues, your causes, your problems, you must be interested in theirs. We cannot be a member of the world community and not be concerned with global issues like weapons of mass destruction, climate change, minority rights, migration, reforming international institutions. If we’re not interested in those topics, if we don’t have something to say about them, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they leave the room when we start talking about self-determination or genocide recognition or regional cooperation. International organizations force you to become a member of the international community.

H.M.: What would you say is your most important foreign policy legacy of the two governments you were a part of?
V.O.: One was clearly our willingness to enter into relations with Turkey with no pre-conditions. This was a noble gesture on our part. After all, we are the survivors of the genocide, yet we are the ones who extended our hand, unconditionally. This is what has made it possible to even contemplate normalizing relations between our countries. The other is our clear commitment to Europe. Although we haven’t done enough I think to move towards European values and traditions, we have stated clearly from the beginning that our view is toward Europe, that is where we belong. Europe knows this, our people know this. What remains is that we give them the tools to get there.
I would add that the work we did during the last 10 years especially on bringing the international community to a more supportive position for self-determination of Karabagh was very important. Our history will show that the first administration did what it could to secure Karabagh’s security during and after a time of war. During our decade, we had the task of reversing Lisbon, of rejecting autonomy as the maximal possible status for Karabagh, and of bringing an international community to regard Karabagh’s right to self-determination as equally important to stability in the region. We ought to maintain that thinking.

H.M.: In the book, you mention your intention to write another book. Tell us about your plans in this regard.
V.O.: It’s probably better I not saying anything until the book is further along. It will be a memoir of the 10 years I spent in office. It’s being written from the same sense of responsibility that moved me to write the first one—that this is our history and it should be shared.

Turkey legalizes the denial of the Armenian Genocide – Part V

Originally published in NewropMag
June 09, 2005
By Houry Mayissian

The Clear and Present Danger test, as it is called, was first proposed in 1919 by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in his interpretations of the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution (1). In order to determine whether the speech at hand is constitutional, “the Clear and Present Danger test asked not whether the words had a bad tendency but rather ‘whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.'” (1)

Advocates of this theory of freedom of expression believe that it is “the best available judicial test for striking a proper balance between protection of the marketplace of ideas and the need to protect the national security and the publics order.” (2) The opponents to this theory, on the other hand, argue that the test is “open to widely varying interpretations” and provides “little or no protection to radical speech in times of political stress” (2). While this argument makes a logical point, I personally believe, that if exercised with care, the above test would be efficient in both securing freedom of expression to the citizens of a country and protecting its national security, especially in times of war.

Although the Clear and Present Danger test is an interpretation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, it can be applied to other countries as a means of regulating government intervention in the right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, using this test in the case of article 305 is appropriate, because the article itself is based on the need to protect “fundamental national interests.” Thus, based on this concept, article 305 would have been justifiable if recognition of the Armenian Genocide truly constituted a “clear and present danger” for Turkey. Not only the recognition of the Armenian Genocide constitutes no such danger to Turkey, its denial threatens one of the country’s basic national interests as announced by Turkey itself: its membership to the European Union. Recent developments show that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey will be one of the issues on the agenda of accession talks. In fact, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told the French RTL radio in December that France will include the issue of the Armenian Genocide in the accession talks that are due to start with Turkey in October 2005 (3). Similar statements by other EU officials and member countries indicate that denial of the Armenian Genocide might in fact become a headache, causing more danger to Turkey, than its recognition.

In conclusion, the adoption of article 305 of the Turkish Penal Code has no justification; the argument that recognition of the Armenian Genocide is a threat against national interests has no basis. In addition, the article contains serious shortcomings that might lead to its abuse by the government. The article has been criticized by the European Parliament and Commission, as well as a number of non-governmental organizations and has been regarded as an infringement on freedom of expression. The article is not the only attempt by the Turkish Government to deny the Armenian Genocide, but its significance lies in the fact that it legalizes this denial. Finally, the article violates the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, a document Turkey has ratified and is obliged to respect. For all the above reasons, the explanatory report citing the Armenian Genocide example (this paper has not dealt with the Cyprus issue) should be deleted.

(1) Kersch, K. I. (2003). Freedom Of Speech: Rights and Liberties Under The Law. California: ABC-CLIO
(2) Cohen, J. & Gleason, T. W. (1990). Social Research in Communication And Law. California: Sage Publications
(3) France to Include “Armenian Genocide” in Turkey’s EU bid talks: FM. Retrieved 19-01-2005.

Turkey legalizes the denial of the Armenian Genocide – Part IV

Originally published in NewropMag
June 08, 2006
By Houry Mayissian

Vagueness in the article

The problem with article 305 of the new Turkish Penal Code is not only the limitations it imposes on freedom of expression; the law is flawed in itself, because it is vague. In its November 13th 2004 issue, The Economist writes: “… an article of the new penal code approved in September … provides for up to ten years’ jail for those who engage in unspecified ‘activities’ against the ‘national interest’. What might such activities be?” (1) The article mentions the examples included in the explanatory report and questions their validity.

The fourth paragraph of article 305 specifies that the term fundamental national interests means “independence, territorial integrity, national security and the fundamental qualities defined in the Constitution of the Republic.” (2)

The explanatory report mentions that the function of this last paragraph is to serve as a “limiting criterion”, because “the concept of ‘fundamental national interests’ may be very wide both from the point of view of its content and its scope.” The definition given for “fundamental national interests” is unclear. Furthermore, even though several limiting criteria are mentioned in the law, the explanatory report in no way illustrates how affirmation of the Armenian Genocide would jeopardize any of the above-mentioned criteria. Moreover, the law talks about benefits and promises, but does not mention or clearly define what such benefits might be.

A Violation of freedom of expression

In addition to being flawed, article 305 of the new Turkish penal code constitutes a serious violation of freedom of expression, an essential pillar for a democratic society. By legalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide the Turkish Government not only distorts historical realities, it also prohibits discussion and affirmation of the fact of the Armenian Genocide.

The document this article depends upon to make its argument is the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights for several reasons: Turkey adopted the new penal code as a condition by the European Union to start accession talks; Turkey has ratified this document in 1954 (3); the European Commission and the Parliament have regarded the article in violation of the said convention.

Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” (3) Thus, by banning affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish Government infringes on the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas, which violates the above article ratified by the Turkish government itself. Moreover, the article casts doubt on how seriously the Turkish government respects the conventions of the European Union, a body it has been trying to join for long.

Having said the above, it should be acknowledged that in no country in the world absolute freedom of expression can be ensured. Furthermore, the concept of freedom of expression in itself is broad and subject to many interpretations. For this purpose, in addition to the above Convention, I also base my critique of article 305 on the theory of Clear and Present Danger.

(1) Haunted by the past. The Economist (2004, November 13). 34-37
(2) Haraszti, M. Review of the Draft Turkish Penal Code: Freedom of Media Concerns. Retrieved 19-05-2005.
(3) Human Rights Watch. (1999). Violations of free expression in Turkey