Armenian Genocide v. Holocaust in Strasbourg: Trivialisation in Comparison

At the end of 2013, the European Court of Human Rights delivered an impressively extensive judgement in the case Perinçek v. Switzerland. The condemnation of a Turkish politician for the denial of Armenian genocide by Swiss courts violated freedom of expression. Along with many human rights scholars, I would hardly shake hands with a Holocaust or an Armenian genocide denier. Yet I will be equally sceptical of courtrooms being appropriate sites to qualify historical truth. For a summary of that position, see my recent paper (“Historical Revisionism: Law, Politics, and Surrogate Mourning”). At first glance, the outcome of Perinçek is a victory for civil rights. Limiting historical discussion by criminal prosecution is clearly an anachronism in the 21st century. However, on a deeper reading, this decision reveals yet another judicial pitfall which substantially undermines its outcome for freedom of speech in Europe. This pitfall stems from a sort of legal hypocrisy embedded in the Court’s distinction between the Holocaust and other mass atrocities of the 20th century.

The Matter

During his 2005 visit to Switzerland, a Turkish politician Dr. Doğu Perinçek gave several public speeches alleging conspiracies against Turks and an “international lie” about Armenian genocide. According to Perinçek, the scope and nature of atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire cannot be deemed genocide. Swiss courts found Perinçek guilty of the criminal offence of genocide denial.

Together with two concurring opinions, the judgment in Strasbourg (currently available exclusively in French) consists of 80 pages. It offers a useful flashback on the Court’s engagement in multiple aspects of historical memory.

While finding the criminal measure legitimate and partially necessary, the Court fosters a lower margin of appreciation for Swiss authorities ...

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