In 1915 Turkish authorities killed half a million Armenians in what most scholars — but unsurprisingly, not the Turks — agree was a genocide. Next week, the French senate is poised to pass a law that makes it a criminal offence to deny that this was genocide, to be punished with a maximum fine of €45 000.
Cynics will attribute the proposed French law less to concern over the death of half a million Armenians a century ago and a continent away, than to concern about the votes of half a million Armenians living in France today and voting in this year’s presidential election. Those more generous might attribute the legislation to guilt, given that so many French — contrary to the post-1945 mythology of every citizen being a doughty Resistance fighter — collaborated enthusiastically with the Germans in sending Jews, Gypsies and assorted other ‘undesirables’ to be exterminated in the Nazi death camps.
There is irony, too, in the French government wanting to criminalise the denial of a genocide in which it has absolutely no historical involvement, while vociferously denying the involvement of its own politicians and officials in the Rwandan genocide, in which more than 800 000 were murdered. For there is ample of evidence that not only were the French guilty of not acting on their fore-knowledge to prevent the impending killings, but of actually providing material and other active military support to the Hutu extremists during the massacres.
Certainly the legislation cannot be attributed to the example of successful existing laws criminalising odious beliefs. The French bill is similar in intent to laws already existing in several European countries, including Germany and France, that make it a criminal offence to deny the 1940s Holocaust, in which six-million Jews were murdered.
The ineffectiveness of such laws can be gauged by the fewer than two dozen successful criminal convictions attained over more than 60 years. This despite Holocaust denial remaining perniciously persistent in much of Europe.
All that has happened is that the denialists have gone underground. They circulate anonymously their twisted ‘truth’ accusing their governments of fearing the open debates that democracies claim to guarantee.
If genocide could simply be legislated against, its bloody stain would long since have been eradicated from humanity’s tunic. In any case, because of their after-the-act nature, denialism laws are not actually meant to forestall genocide, defined by the United Nations Convention of 1948 as the intentional destruction in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
One cannot usefully legislate against an attitude or a belief, but one can legislate against criminal behaviour that might result from an attitude or a belief. Strong human rights protection in constitutions and laws against hate speech are far more credible mechanisms to contain extremist tendencies than martyring someone for his or her political delusions.
It is the duty of governments to protect their citizens from harm. It is not government’s task to protect its citizens’ sensitivities, however justifiable and acute, from peacefully expressed views, however bizarre.
This is not only a matter of the right to freedom of expression. To censor thought or opinion is to limit our understanding of the world. If one cannot look critically at certain historical events, the past remains frozen at an officially sanctioned moment in time. For history to credibly illuminate the present, it has to be open to continual academic revision.
Laws against denialism are cynical attempts to hide from public view the poisonous strains infesting the body politic. It is seductive to use a law to try to attempt to draw a veil over rank-smelling matters, rather than engage honestly with the lunatic fringe and expose them to the withering effect of reason and ridicule.