French Law on Criminalizing Genocide Denial and Zoryan Institute’s Opposition

The French National Assembly in 2006 passed a bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide. This raised widespread controversy over the dichotomy between the role of the law in preventing harmful speech, while at the same time, impeding freedom of speech.

The Institute’s Chairman, Prof. Roger W. Smith, disseminated an analysis titled “Laws against Genocide Denial: Potential Consequences for Human Rights.” The Institute as an organization that promotes human rights above all, took the stance that limiting the discourse on historical events is not the role of the state in a free society and that this amendment to the 2001 law, which recognized the Armenian Genocide, contradicts the basic human rights of freedom of expression and free speech.

In order to clarify what is at stake in such legislation, the Institute participated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law’s Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies, and others, in a 2006 conference in New York City. The conference, titled “Denying Genocide: Law,  Identity and Historical Memory in the Face of Mass Atrocity,” analyzed many complex and interrelated issues. Besides discussing when to impose legitimate restriction of a citizen’s freedom of expression, the conference raised other questions regarding consequences of such laws. For example, the outcome could have a significant impact on Armenian-Turkish relations worldwide, how denial is addressed in other jurisdictions, how Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code, which is being used to suppress discussion of the Armenian Genocide, is viewed, and on Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.

The proceedings of the conference have been published in several issues of the Cardozzo Journal of Conflict Resolution (2007 and 2008).

Prof. Smith also addressed this matter in 2010 a conference at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, titled “The Armenian Genocide within the Framework of National and International Law” organized by the Institute.  He  spoke on the legal and philosophical aspects of laws penalizing genocide denial. While genocide denial is dangerous and continues the victimization of the target group, he said, preventing free speech in such cases has its own, serious, negative consequences.

Both conferences, which were open to the public, are part of the Institute’s wider efforts to create forums and engage civil society on pressing, international concerns and discourse.