On the 24th of April each year, millions of Armenians across the globe come together to commemorate what was the first genocide of the 20th century. Unlike other genocides, however, this is a genocide rarely discussed; indeed, its very existence remains controversial, as it unfolded before Raphael Lemkin famously coined the term ‘genocide’. This has led many scholars to question whether the fate of the Armenians could have been different had the term genocide existed in the lexicon at the time it occurred. Moreover, the disputed nature of the massacres has raised some thorny free speech questions; for example, the outright denial of the genocide by its perpetrators and whether such speech ought to be protected.
The roots of the Armenian genocide are often traced to the decline of the Ottoman Empire that began in the mid-nineteenth century. This led to rising tensions between the Armenians – who had inhabited the region today known as northeastern Turkey and the Republic of Armenia in the former USSR for at least 2,500 years – and the Turks. This shift in power made grave conflict inevitable. The Armenians who were religiously and culturally distinct began to be resented and seen as a threat.
As these tensions intensified with a rapidly weakening Ottoman stronghold, an ultra-nationalist movement of Young Turks, determined to modernise and “Turkify” the Empire, seized power in 1908. In 1914, these Young Turks entered the First World War allied with Germany and the Armenians who inhabited both sides of the Russo-Turkish border, were blamed for treachery for siding with the Russians. What ensued was a systematic extermination of approximately 1.5 million Armenians, who were raped, murdered or starved en route to concentration camps in Syria.
Turkey has consistently denied the genocide, arguing that it was just another messy situation arising in the course of a messy war. It maintains that the number of Armenians killed was 500,000. The United States, for who Turkey remains a key strategic ally providing airbases with military access to Iraq, has also refrained from recognising the massacres as genocide. This political alliance has emboldened Turkey in exploiting the free speech framework in the United States Constitution, to lead what is an effective genocide denial campaign. It has funded different chairs at universities to lead this charge, most notably, Guenter Lewy, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts. The International Association of Genocide Scholars has labelled him a ‘genocide denier’.
The campaign to deny the Armenian genocide demonstrates that political motivations can often masquerade as free speech. Freedom of expression is often seen as the crown jewel of fundamental freedoms and hence any question of enacting genocide denial laws inevitably provokes a backlash. Admittedly, censorship can never be condoned except in special circumstances and most international law treaties identify when limitations on speech may be justified – including, ‘inter alia’, scenarios that would involve the protection of the rights of others. Moreover, there are certain norms within international law that form part of what is referred to as ‘jus cogens’ or peremptory norms – these are fundamental principles of international law that are accepted by the international community as norms from which no derogation is ever permitted – and include crimes such as torture and crimes against humanity. Given the ceaseless tussle between free speech proponents and those favouring censorship in special circumstances, this slippery slope is avoided if genocide denial laws, including the denial of the Armenian genocide, should be brought within the remit of these peremptory norms.