Towards demanding accountability for the Armenian Genocide

Originally published in NewropMag
May 31, 2006
By Houry Mayissian

Amid a diplomatic row with Turkey, the French National Assembly debated a draft law last week that makes denial of the Armenian Genocide punishable by law. Although voting on the bill was postponed, it remains the first practical step by the international community towards demanding accountability for the Armenian Genocide from Turkey.

The French bill, the first of its kind in the world, was introduced by the opposition Socialist party. It proposes up to five years imprisonment and a 45,000 euro fine for deniers of the Armenian Genocide. The French government, however, made it clear on several occasions that it is opposed to the resolution that would undermine French-Turkish relations.

In the run-up to the debate on May 18, Turkey once again put on one of its finest shows of diplomatic pressure and threats, usual reactions to any Armenian Genocide resolution under study by the international community.

Considering the seriousness of the bill, however, this time Ankara went as far as threatening France with trade sanctions, threatening to recognize what they called a “genocide” committed by France in Algeria, stirring French businessmen involved in Turkey to lobby against the bill, sending a special parliamentary delegation to Paris and calling back its Ambassador to Paris for “consultations”; All this apart from the regular letter and email campaigns, demonstrations and verbal warnings by Turkish officials.

The Turkish pressures paid off partly but the bill was not scrapped altogether as Ankara would have wished it to. It was debated, but the vote was postponed due to alleged time limitations. Even though the Armenian Genocide resolution was the second issue on the agenda of the National Assembly’s May 18 session, speaker Jean-Louis Debré reportedly extended the time limit of the first agenda, not leaving enough time for discussing the bill.

The move led to an outcry by many French lawmakers. Nevertheless Debré postponed the vote on the bill after 30 minutes of discussions. The resolution is expected to return to the assembly’s agenda in autumn.

Those opposing the resolution in France sighted fears of strain in relations between Paris and Ankara. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was quoted telling the National Assembly: “The Armenian cause is just and should be defended and respected. But the bill you have submitted today would, if passed, be considered as an unfriendly gesture by a large majority of Turks, whether you want this or not.”

After postponing the vote, Debré, in his turn, told France Inter Radio that laws can’t make history and urged parliaments not to interfere with the job of historians. Herve de
Charrette, the deputy chairman of the French Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission, echoed a similar statement.

Both reasons might seem justifiable or understandable to some French lawmakers, but the fact is both are baseless arguments. Yes, if the law is adopted French-Turkish relations will be strained as they were in 2001 when France recognized the Armenian Genocide. Yes, Turkey will cancel contracts with French businessmen, probably call back its Ambassador for a while, maybe even recognize the so-called Algerian “genocide”, but the fact of the matter is all this will only be temporary measures and after a couple of months things will be back to business as usual as happened 5 years ago.

French lawmakers know well that a Turkey aspiring to become a member of the European Union can’t afford to boycott France for long, whether diplomatically or economically, given that the latter is one of the major players of the EU. It is Turkey that needs to appear favorable to France and not the opposite.

The second reason is all the more baseless. The Armenian Genocide is not an issue of the past, it does not belong to history and certainly not to historians. Historians have long said their word on the issue: what happened was Genocide. This makes the matter all the more a very contemporary and political issue that the international community needs to address.

It is true that more than ninety years have passed since the Armenian Genocide was planned and executed by Ottoman Turkey during World War I. However, as a result of that Genocide, the majority of the Armenian population of the world continues to live outside Armenia; relations, even diplomatic ties, between Turkey and Armenia still do not exist; the destruction of Armenian monuments and heritage in Eastern Turkey continues; and finally Armenians have yet to wait for an official recognition and reparations by Turkey.

The UN Genocide Convention clearly provisions punishments for the committers of acts of Genocide and reparations to the victims. Sadly, despite the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by many countries, the international community has yet to demand accountability from Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire that carried out the systematic annihilation of over one and a half million Armenians, looting their properties and historically Armenian lands.

It is here that the significance of the proposed French law comes to the fore. It is the first law ever to go beyond merely recognizing the Armenian Genocide and to react to the ongoing Turkish denial to it.

An Armenian Genocide recognition law adopted by France in 2001 states: “France publicly recognizes the Armenian Genocide of 1915.” It does not mention or condemn the perpetrators, let alone refer to the continuous denial by Turkey of the Armenian Genocide.

The 2001 law was a historic step in the process for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Yet, recognizing Genocide without willing to do anything about it is saying: “Yes, we acknowledge you were subjected to genocide, but we’re not doing anything about it except saying it out loud”!

It is time that France and the international community realize that it is specifically this attitude that makes it ok for Turkey to deny the Armenian Genocide. It is because the international community has never demanded accountability that Ankara can so freely deny this historical fact.

A recent example of ongoing, everyday Turkish denial was the attempted trial of well-known Turkish author Orhan Pamuk on charges of “insulting Turkish identity” following his comments to a Swiss newspaper that one million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Empire. Pamuk did not even have to use the word Genocide to be deemed a traitor by many Turks.

And to think that many Turks both in Turkey and France protested against limitations of free speech by the proposed French bill, is to witness hypocrisy in its finest forms.

Despite Turkish pressures and threats the French bill will sooner or later be debated by the French National Assembly. It will present the perfect opportunity for France to lead the international community into taking practical steps towards legally demanding accountability from Turkey for the Armenian Genocide.