Attorney Levon Kirakosian Discusses Criminalizing Genocide Denial

Levon Kirakosian at the Montebello Vigil (Photo By Nora Yacoubian)

Attorney Levon Kirakosian discussed the issue of criminalizing the denial of the Armenian Genocide, an effort, which was defeated last week in the French Senate, as well the importance of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the international community during an address at a Genocide commemoration vigil at the Montebello Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Monument on April 23.

This week we present his speech in its entirety.

The words of Psalm 31 say: “I have become like a broken vessel. I hear the whispering of many – terror on every side – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O Lord: I say, ‘you are my God, you are my Salvation.” As a young boy my mother related this story to me every April 24. While she described the repetitive chanting of her village priest as they fled in panic from the attacks of the Turkish irregulars. Tears would swell in her eyes as she recalled those events and I could see from her eyes her drifting away to that scene. Soon after, that priest, along with hundreds of other Armenians, was drowned in the Euphrates at the hands of those Turkish soldiers.

In that moment of memories, I could feel that in her mind, her heart and her soul an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which would come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Genocide. Ladies and gentlemen I invite you to stand for a moment of silence in memory of those 1.5 million victims who perished.

Reverend Fathers, Honored guests, friends, and Ungers. We are gathered here to remember and to consider the injustices that transpired at the hands of the Turkish Government against the Armenian People. This began on April 24, 1915, during the tragic events of the 1st World War.

First, let me express my gratitude to the organizers of this evening’s event, the Armenian National Committee of the San Gabriel Valley and the ARF Dro Gomideh.

Ladies and Gentleman, we put effort into attending April 24 Genocide Commemorations every year, because we feel that we have a moral, ethical and religious duty to spread our message as much as possible.

There is no doubt whatsoever that during World War I there developed a terrible and catastrophic policy resulting in genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Government against the Armenian People. These atrocities have been confirmed by innumerable eye witnesses and survivors and fully documented again and again. I personally never saw either of my Grandfathers, because they were both killed in 1915. I like many others lost countless relatives who perished under the Turkish rule by intentional murder and genocide.

The figure of 1.5 million is regularly quoted. Some may dispute this figure, but the crime is just as dreadful whether the number of victims totaled 1 million, 1.5 million or 6 million. The method of murder is also irrelevant, whether it was by the sword, starvation, death marches, or the gas chambers. The evil was the same. It would be a terrible affront to the memory of those who perished to belittle the guilt of the crime in any way.

The Turkish Government’s present campaign of denial is a continuation of the “Armenian Genocide.” My aim tonight is to try and present the Armenian National Committee’s viewpoint in this matter.

Specifically by denying the fact that the Armenian Genocide ever occurred; the crime continues and all who support the denial are complicit in that crime. President Obama, we call on YOU to recognize this crime as genocide, paraphrasing Congressman Adam Schiff we ask that you “return to the clarity you so forcefully expressed [as a candidate] in 2008. [To] stand with the ever-dwindling number of survivors, as well as their descendants, who continue to suffer the ‘double killing’ of denial.”

Today President Obama again fell short of his campaign promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Government. As citizens of the United States of America it is unacceptable to witness a foreign government manipulating the President of the U.S.

In October 2006 the National Assembly of France passed a bill criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide as has Switzerland and Belgium. Subsequently, Germany has also proposed to outlaw genocide denial throughout the European Union. These laws provoked a vigorous debate on the con¬nection between the law and genocide denial. The main criticism expressed by the opponents of the laws against denial is that its criminalization constitutes a violation of free¬dom of speech. Therefore it represents a potential threat to democracy: it is our position that anti-denial laws and free¬dom of speech are not irreconcilable.

It is important to remember that all democratic societies guarantee¬ing certain freedoms also admit that no freedom is absolute or unlimited. Criminalization of denial is only one limitation of free speech, among many others (like defamation, libel or laws against obscenity) they are generally based on the responsibility that every citizen has, a responsibility that some historians and politicians in this country seem to forget. Anti-democratic speeches and declaration of hate, racism and sexism, are dangerous and harmful acts. They threaten the preservation of a democracy and should be excluded from legal protection.

Therefore, the most rigorous protection of free speech would not protect a man from falsely shouting fire in a theater. Therefore, it is a given, in all democracies, that freedom of speech is not absolute.

The interpretations given by French judges in genocide denial cases clarify the limitations of the prohibition. The 1990 Gayssot Law which deals with the Jewish Holocaust shows that what is actually condemned by judges is not the denialist opinion in itself, but the public dissemination of this opinion as an act of bad faith likely to produce dangerous or harmful effects in a democracy. What matters to the judges is whether the denial reveals a political motivation. European Courts do not take into consideration what is said, but rather how and why it is said.

If History is a permanent questioning of events and facts, it nevertheless implies professional responsibility and ethics: freedom of a scholar does not mean irresponsibility.

Actually, the major difference between genocide denial and other limitations of free speech lie in the requirement of showing a malicious intent or bad faith.

Human dignity as well as solidarity and equality between humans is destroyed by the perpetration of genocide; and repeated again by its denial.

An example that illustrates the above is the case against Princeton University professor of history Bernard Lewis, His genocide denial became international news on June 21, 1995, when a French court condemned him for statements he made during a 1993 interview with the French newspaper “Le Monde.” The case, which argued that Lewis’ statements caused harm to Armenian Genocide survivors, was filed by among others ANC of France.

The Court found Lewis “at fault,” stating that, “his remarks, which could unfairly revive the pain of the Armenian community, are tortuous and justify compensation. The court further affirmed that, “the historian is bound by his responsibility toward the persons concerned when, by distortion or falsification, he credits the veracity of manifestly erroneous allegations or, through serious negligence, omits events or opinions subscribed to by persons qualified and enlightened enough so that the concern for accuracy prevents him from keeping silent about them.” Lewis was symbolically fined one franc and “Le Monde” was ordered to reprint portions of the French court judgment, which appeared two days later.

All scholars, irrespective of their discipline, agree that denial is similar to genocide. It is not a distinct act, rather a “part of it:  an “assassination of the memory;” a destruction of proof and testimony. It is inherently linked to the violence of the genocide and the growing assault on the truth. It is the ultimate stage of the genocidal process which perpetuates the crime. Deniers join the initial perpetrators by reviving the overall injury that the genocide represents, keeping the survivors and their descendants in mourning, with no access to closure.

Unlike what certain critics seem to believe, it is not the criminalization of denial that is incompatible with democratic values: moreover, it is the distortion of history for political ends that destroys the foundation of both the practice of democracy and the protection of human rights. Therefore, historical misrepresentations of the efforts to exterminate a particular ethnic group increase the likelihood that Genocide will be undertaken again in another time and another place. As such, it is worthwhile to understand that the legal an¬swer to genocide denial is its criminalization; it thus becomes a tool for the prevention of genocide.

As Tim Rutten recently challenged President Obama’s refusal to refer to ‘Genocide’ wrote in the Los Angeles Times on April 20th; ‘we keep the memory of tragic wickedness, like the Armenian genocide, not simply out of respect for those who died but also in the hope that their example will strengthen our resolve to confront the next cabal of murderers who doubtless will come. Pretending otherwise — for whatever reason — is not prudence but cowardice’.

Ladies and Gentleman, The road ahead will be thorny. There will still be difficult times ahead. However, we as a people are caught up with that which is right and we are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. The ANC call upon the youth to join us in this struggle, we will challenge, we will petition, we will not rest until justice is attained for our people.


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One Comment;

  1. Hrant K. said:

    We need more Tim Ruttens challenging and obliging President Obama for his refusal of referral

    of the Armenian Genocide, and less historian-called tainted Bernard Lewis’s to be put behind bars

    for their hate and denialist crimes, perpetrated and bribed by the turkish official and secret authorities!!! (7)