The president of France is getting ready to sign a bill making it a crime in his country to deny that a century ago, the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians. As President Nicolas Sarkozy’s own party proposed the legislation, we suspect that he will sign it. But it’s never too late to drop a bad idea.
Let’s start with the genocide -- it happened. Beginning in 1915, as many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians living in what today is modern Turkey were killed or deported. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, or more accurately was being dismembered by Britain, France and Russia. The authorities in Istanbul saw Christian Armenians as a potential fifth column and drove them out through executions and deportations. Greeks and Christian Assyrians soon followed.
This is a painful piece of Armenian history that continues to traumatize the families of its victims, now dispersed around the globe in California, France and elsewhere. Every April, there are battles in Washington as legislators with Armenian constituents lobby for the U.S. to formally recognize the genocide.
Turkey, the Ottoman Empire’s successor state, has barely started to deal with the essential process of facing the truth and bringing some kind of closure to the victims’ families. While it has recently become possible for Turkish historians to discuss the events of 1915 without facing jail, it was only in 2007 that Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead in broad daylight for daring to write about the genocide.
Instead, Turkish officials like to emphasize that 1915 was in the midst of World War I; that Armenian units fought with the Russians in a grab for territory; and that many ethnic Turks were killed too, some of them by Armenian revenge squads. That’s all true. It’s also irrelevant. The 1948 United Nations convention on genocide defines it as crimes carried out with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It’s what the Ottoman leaders intended and carried through that counts.
But if Turkey is having trouble defending free speech, that’s no reason for France to follow suit. The new French law would make denying the Armenian genocide punishable by a year in jail or a 45,000-euro fine. Just as problematic, if governments are going to make a habit of legislating the history of other nations, where should they stop?
The bill on President Sarkozy’s desk covers only the two genocides that France has formally recognized -- the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Great Catastrophe. Yet UN courts have ruled that genocide was committed in Rwanda in 1994, as well as at Srebrenica in Bosnia, a year later. Why not send people to jail for denying these genocides, too?
French legislators didn’t need a UN court ruling to act on the Armenian issue. So how about Sudan’s Darfur, or Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia? Or Stalin’s engineered famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, or Oliver Cromwell’s scorched earth campaign against the Catholics of Ireland? Or, indeed, the decimation of Native Americans during the European settlement of North America?
No surprise then that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not a man to mince his words, is now claiming that France committed genocide in Algeria, a former African colony, in the 1950s and ‘60s.
None of this helps solve the real problems that this troubled part of the world faces today. The question for Sarkozy isn’t who is right in this dispute, but why should France be legislating an issue of two other nations’ history, let alone adding it to the French penal code? Turkey eventually will have to reconcile with Armenia over the genocide, on its own.
The law could also harm economic relations. Turkey, an emerging market with a young and growing population, is spending tens of billions of dollars on new capital investment. That means passenger aircraft, water purification plants, high-speed trains, nuclear power stations and military hardware -- all areas in which French companies are among the world leaders. Turkish officials have said publicly they would extract a commercial price for the genocide law.
Some of the 86 French senators who voted against the genocide bill are now trying to round up the votes they need to challenge it in France’s constitutional court. We hope they succeed. Turkey and France are NATO allies that need to be working together to stabilize the Middle East, not bickering over each other’s history.
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