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Explainer: France's New Genocide Law Is About More Than Ottoman Armenians

  • Charles Recknagel

Armenians demonstrate outside the French Embassy in Yerevan to thank France for enacting a law that makes it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians

Armenians demonstrate outside the French Embassy in Yerevan to thank France for enacting a law that makes it a crime to deny the mass killings of Armenians

The French parliament has grabbed headlines this week by passing legislation under which it would be a crime to deny that the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was genocide.
But there is something often overlooked in the reporting on France's new law.
The new law is not just about Ottoman Armenians.
In fact, the law makes it a crime for French citizens to deny any genocide recognized by France.
At the moment, Paris only recognizes two mass killings as genocide. They are the Holocaust carried out against Jews and Roma by Nazi Germany during World War II, and the killings of the Ottoman Armenians in World War I.
Holocaust Denial A Crime

But there are things about the new law that suggests the number could grow.
A little history shows why.
When the new law was first proposed, it was as a follow-up to France's recognizing the killings of the Ottoman Armenians as genocide in 2001.
So, the first proposal was to simply make denying that a crime, just as denying the Holocaust has been a crime since 1990.
But to gain support, the new law's proponents widened its scope.
They proposed making it a punishable offense to deny any genocide recognized by France -- now or in the future.
With that, the campaign was successful. The result: denying officially recognized genocides brings a punishment of up to one year in prison, a fine of 45,000 euros ($58,000), or both.
Such success could encourage campaigns around other genocides, particularly those recognized in some places but not in France.
The UN General Assembly, for example, recognizes three genocides: the Holocaust, the mass killing of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turkey in 1915, and the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.
The UN's Hague-based court for the former Yugoslavia tries suspects for genocide as well as for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And there are groups seeking to gain wide recognition of the mass killings in Cambodia, the Hladomor in the Ukraine, and the eviction of the Circassians from the Russian Empire as genocide, to name just a few more.
Still, no one should underestimate the difficulties involved. Nowhere do parliaments take recognizing genocides lightly, because there is always a political cost.
For France, recognizing the genocide against Ottoman Armenians has damaged relations with Turkey.
Disputed Numbers

Many historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks. But Ankara puts the toll at 300,000 to 500,000 and rejects that the killings were an organized policy.
In Turkey, writers who question that can run afoul of a legal provision that makes it illegal to insult Turkey.
Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk was called to court for saying in 2005 that "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."
His case was later dropped by the Justice Ministry. But it had a chilling effect on any others who might say the same.

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