All that makes existence valuable to any one depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. –John Stuart Mill (On Liberty)
Last week, the French Senate approved a bill that, in effect, makes it a criminal offense to deny the genocide committed by Ottoman Turks against Armenians. Predictable Turkish “outrage” has included threats to recall its Ambassador to France, restrict trade between the nations, and a move to deport Armenian laborers from Turkey. The legislation has also aroused public debate about the freedom of speech and expression as it relates to genocide denial. While the law should be applauded as a milestone in punishing an ongoing genocide, some are misrepresenting it as a violation of a universal right.
The purpose of the law (as stated by the French Senate; translated into English), “aims to punish those who have publicly made an apology for, trivialized, or denied crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes…or [crimes] recognized by France.”
This bill is written in the same spirit as the Gayssot Act, enacted in France in 1990. The Gayssot Act responded to “revisionism” by individuals who justified their writings by their (perceived) status as historians, who challenged the existence of the Holocaust. To the French government these revisionist arguments constituted a contemporary form of anti-Semitism that warranted a limitation of the freedom of speech in France. The law has since been challenged and upheld, by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, as a necessary restriction of expression “intended to serve the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism.” 1
The committee’s judgement mentioned Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as justification for upholding the law. Article 19 of the Covenant states that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression…[however,] the exercise of these rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities [and] may therefore be subject to certain restrictions [which are] provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights and reputations of others; [and] for the protection of national security or of public order.”
In recognizing the legality of the Gayssot Act, the Human Rights Committee acknowledged the duality of “the freedom of speech and expression” as both a right and a duty. Free speech is only a right as far as it does not infringe on rights of others to be free from assaults on their dignity. Moreover, free speech carries with it the duty to act responsibly and with respect to others and to society as a whole.
These laws highlight differences between European and American value systems and resulting legal responses. While the United States prides itself on being a protector of individual liberties2, European countries place a higher onus on the inviolability of human dignity.3 For this reason, denialist speech is not understood to be a right, rather it is seen as an indefensible form of racism.
Regardless of geographic location, it is absurd to think that societies exist today or should exist, which place no boundaries on speech and expression (consider laws that prohibit child pornography, advertising cigarettes to kids, or exposing state secrets). So the question is not whether to place limits, rather the question is where to place the limits.
Even in the United States, considered the bastion of liberty, the concept of free speech has never been absolute. US courts have agreed that not all speech is protected speech. Unlawful speech, under the United States Constitution, includes defamation, perjury, incitement and several other categories.
Unlawful Speech (under the US Constitution) Defamation: False statements about another person, which causes harm to that person. Perjury: False statements made during a judicial proceeding while under oath to speak the truth. Incitement: Speech that is intended to cause an immediate breach of the peace.
To better understand where the limits to speech and expression should be, the question that must be asked is, “Does the speech in question further or hinder our society’s most fundamental values/goals?” While it is said, “truth emerges from the clash of ideas,” governmental intervention is necessitated in many instances.
In American society, we value dignity and aim to protect it from untruths; therefore we punish defamation because it spreads lies, which hurt people’s reputation and honor. We value due process, a truthful historical record and honesty; therefore we punish perjury because false testimony becomes a part of court transcripts that can be used to unjustly convict (or acquit) others. We value peace and lawfulness; therefore we punish incitement because instigating illegal activity is dangerous.
Genocide is understood to be a crime against all of humanity, and it remains society’s obligation to punish it and prevent its recurrence. In order to do so, a strong message must be sent that recognizes historical facts and simultaneously condemns their distortion. This is important, not to “prove” the history to the perpetrators, but to safeguard the education of future generations, and to isolate and discredit the revisionists.
The International Association of Genocide Scholars has stated, “The single best predictor of future genocide is denial of a past genocide coupled with impunity for its perpetrators.” Since denial is the last phase of genocide, Turkey represents a continual threat to Armenia’s national security (not to mention the safety of its minority populations) as an unrepentant human rights violator, and a threat to the international community through its audacious state-sponsored denial campaign and political bullying. Steps, such as those taken by France, should be adopted without cowering to threats of reprisal, implicit4 or explicit5, from the Turkish government.
The notion that today’s Turkey is organically and voluntarily coming to terms with its past, and should therefore be left to its own devices is dangerously misguided. If not for international condemnation, resulting from decades of global activism, the Armenian genocide would be a non-issue relegated to the annals of history. Moreover, Armenian genocide-related human rights violations continue to this very day in Turkey, from the failure to investigate state culpability in Hrant Dink’s murder, to the arrest of Ragip Zarakolu, to the calls for new deportations. Therefore, it is justifiable and reasonable for the international community to condemn Turkey through their legislative bodies.
External pressure and international isolation have finally led to discussion about the genocide inside of Turkey. However, as long as the government of Turkey continues its current policies, these measures will remain necessary to raise the issue, for the sake of the victims, their descendants, Turkish citizens, and the international community at large.
Notes 1. In 1993 Holocaust-denying “academic” Robert Faurisson challenged the legality of the Gayssot Act. He claimed the law curtailed his right to freedom of expression and academic freedom in general, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by 67 nations, including France: 1980; Turkey: 2003; Armenia: 1993; United States: 1992). The United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Faurisson was convicted for “violating the rights and reputations of others” and ruled that the Gayssot law was a necessary restriction of his expression “intended to serve the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism.”
2. Seen in the Bill of Rights, most notably in the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and press.
Christmas is a time for family, friends, love, and happiness. For most of us who are fortunate enough to live in the United States, many can recall vivid childhood memories filled with toys that we had wished for from Santa. Unfortunately, for every person that can account for one such memory, theres a child, in Armenia, that has experienced an entire childhood, let alone Christmas, without these extravagant presents. Although we experience poverty here in the States, it will never come close to the poverty experienced in many cities throughout Armenia. Toys are not a necessity, theyre a luxury. Most children cannot even play with soccer balls, dolls, or put together puzzles because their families simply cannot afford it. Then there are those living in orphanages. What about their childhood? Why should they not experience being a kid and be given the opportunity to play?
This is where we step in, the Diaspora. For the past four years, the AYF Fresno Kevork Chavoush chapter has worked relentlessly to reverse the process of growing up for many underprivileged children living in Armenia, Artsakh, and most recently added, Javakhk. There was no excuse as to why these kids should have a Christmas without toys. Thus, the Toy Drive was born, whose purpose is to send new, unopened toys to less fortunate children in Armenia.
Starting early December 2011, the Fresno AYF chapter put on their annual Toy Drive and collected toys all throughout the Central Valley. Many local businesses agreed to have a box placed at their location to help with the collecting of toys. The chapter even received monetary donations to purchase toys on behalf of the donors. Once the Toy Drive was complete, there was a total of 350 plus toys collected. Its amazing to see people reaching out and donating, although economically, most people are going through a rough patch.
The AYF Fresno Kevork Chavoush chapter would like to personally thank everyone for all their help, donations, and time given for the sake of the Toy Drive. It was a very successful event and we hope to double that number in the future. If you would like to help our chapter next year by placing a donation box in your place of business, or even by donating toys, please contact us at (559) 696-8358. Well keep your information ready and handy for the forthcoming Toy Drive.
Youth Corps is the flagship program of the Armenian Youth Federation, a six-week long summer program aimed at building bridges to the homeland. As a non-profit organization, the AYF counts on donations from community members to ensure its continued success. Program participants and committee members work to rapidly increase the quality and impact of the program.
For summer 2011, the Youth Corps planning committee chose to fundraise by raffling off an iPad. Youth Corps participants hustled to sell twenty-five or more tickets to their friends, and family, and community members alike. They worked relentlessly to guarantee enough funds to attain the necessary amount of art supplies, camp t-shirts, and educational materials for each child in the program. Fortunately,Youth Corps reached its goal and was able to serve over 600 Armenian youth in three two-week camp sessions.
The Youth Corps committee and participants would like to thank everyone who purchased a raffle ticket and supported the program. The lucky winner of the raffle was announced on December 23rd, 2011 at the All-ASA Night Before Eve Youth Corp fundraiser. By purchasing just one $10 raffle, Hermine Tsaturyan won an iPad. Stay tuned to find out what this years raffle prize will be!
Founded in 1933, the Armenian Youth Federation is the largest and most influential Armenian-American youth organization in the United States working to advance the social, political, educational, and cultural awareness of Armenian-American youth.
Spending six weeks in Armenia was a dream come true, I can honestly say it wasn’t anything short of amazing. I was able to invest my time and energy into helping the children of Armenia, rather than sending my money from across the globe through a computer screen. Seeing the smiling faces of those eager and optimistic kids of Stepanagert, Gyumri, and Broshyan was all I needed to get out of bed every morning to make it to camp.
Even after many late nights of hanging out with the local AYF Ungers, or having our own “kef” time with our group, we made sure we had enough energy to give it back to the kids come 9:00 a.m. It was those late nights with the Ungers, those moments where we ventured off into the city on our own, and our countless hours spent with the kids, that was when we unknowingly created bridges to our homeland.
The bridges I speak of are not meant to be taken in a literal sense, it is meant to serve as a metaphor for creating an everlasting bond to our home, our kids, our future, our Armenia. The AYF Youth Corps Program has not only tightened the ropes to the bond I share with Hayastan, but it has opened a door of possibilities; the possibility to eventually move back home to Armenia and make a difference with my own two hands.
I encourage everyone to apply to the Youth Corps Program, it will change your life in its entirety.
If you cannot participate this coming year, you can always help out by taking part in our fundraiser and purchasing a Youth Corps water bottle for just $10.00. With your help, the funds collected can help us purchase 3 water bottles for every 1 sold, to give out to our campers during the program. Help us put a bigger smile on their faces, and I’m sure one will come across yours.