29th Mar 2020

Rehn warns France against adopting Armenia genocide law

  • Armenian genocide memorial - some MEPs question whether there was a genocide (Photo: Wikipedia)

EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn has warned France on its planned adoption of a law making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, saying it may mean that people could "end up in prison in an EU member state" for expressing their views.

The French parliament will on Thursday (12 October) vote on a law proposed by the country's socialists which would penalise the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, in a move which has sparked anger in Turkey and strong concern in the European Commission and European Parliament.

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Mr Rehn told Reuters on Monday (9 October) that the proposed legislation risks impairing relations between the EU and candidate member state Turkey, where public opinion largely denies that a genocide took place under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.

"The French law on the Armenian genocide is of course a matter for French lawmakers, but there is a lot at stake for the European Union as well, and the decision may have very serious consequences for EU-Turkey relations," Mr Rehn said.

"Such a law would have counter-productive consequences because it would say to the Turks that there is nothing to discuss. Here you have the final truth and if you happen to deny it you end up in prison in an EU member state," he added.

"This would put in danger the efforts of all those in Turkey – intellectuals, historians, academics, authors – who truly want to develop an open and serious debate without taboos and for the sake of freedom of expression."

The commissioner's unusual criticism of free speech legislation in an EU member state - instead of in candidate states - follows strong remarks by Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan who recently asked if he would be "put in prison" if he were to visit France and said there was no genocide.

MEPs wade into debate

Meanwhile, the draft French law has also started to raise tempers in the European Parliament, with one of the parliament's senior experts on Turkey warning that the freedom of speech in the EU is under threat.

Joost Lagendijk, Dutch Green MEP and chair of the parliament's delegation to the joint EU-Turkey parliamentary committee, told EUobserver that EU efforts to promote free speech in Turkey are being made "less credible" by the French legislation.

"The EU is rapidly developing a perception problem in Turkey," Mr Lagendijk said.

"If we ask Turkey to ensure the freedom of expression we cannot have a situation where at the same time, people could end up jailed for their views in Europe. Freedom of speech is at stake here."

The Dutch MEP was referring to the EU's efforts to get Ankara to change the notorious article 301 in its penal code, which penalises "insulting Turkishness."

The article has been frequently used to bring charges against writers and intellectuals - most recently the novelist Elif Safak - who in one way or another question the prevailing Turkish view that there was no Armenian genocide.

Was there a genocide?

Mr Lagendijk said he himself is not sure there was a real "genocide" against the Armenians, saying that "serious historians have questioned" whether "there was a deliberate campaign aimed at eradicating the Armenian people, causing 1.5 million victims."

"I am among those who believe hundreds of thousands of people died in a horrible way, but who are not sure there was a deliberate attempt at murdering an entire people," he said.

The remarks have infuriated French MEPs, with centre-right deputy Patrick Gaubert saying Mr Lagendijk's comments are "unacceptable."

"I am really shocked," he said. "This gentlemen should start to read history books. Everybody knows and nobody doubts that this was a genocide."

Defending the proposed anti-denial law, he said "Europe is a continent where freedom of speech is guaranteed in an extraordinary manner. But free speech ends when the memories of a people are abused and their feelings are suffering from lies."

'No discrimination between genocides'

"There are certain subjects where you have to show caution, pity and respect for those who have suffered - like also in the case of the Jewish Holocaust," he added, the public denial of which is already illegal in France and Austria.

Martine Roure, a French socialist MEP, said that Mr Lagendijk is "wrong."

"There is already a provision in French law against denying the Shoah [the Holocaust]. This does not mean that people are being sent to prison for that - they just receive a moral condemnation."

"We cannot discriminate between genocides," she said ahead of Thursday's vote in the French parliament.

French genocide law a 'bad mistake' says Finnish FM

The French law criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide during the first world war is a "bad mistake" says the Finnish foreign minister in his internet blog, explaining that historical truths should not be up to politicians to decide.

Brussels and Ankara condemn French law on Armenia genocide

The European Commission has condemned a French parliament vote in support of a law criminalising denial that Armenians suffered genocide by the Ottoman Turks, with Turkey saying centuries-old Paris-Ankara relations have taken a "severe blow."

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