Human Rights — or Free Speech?

Turks demonstrate outside the French National Assembly

The Armenian Genocide (as it is known) took place in 1915, ninety-six years ago.  But the circumstances, and indeed whether it was in fact an act of genocide, remain hotly disputed, and arouse great passions on both sides of the debate.  Ask the Armenian Christians, and they will assert that up to 1.5 million Armenians were brutally abused and murdered by forces of the Ottoman Empire.  Ask the Muslim Turks, and they will tell you that in an uprising akin to civil war, many protagonists and civilians died on both sides.  Ask Bill Clinton, and he will say that Turkish and Armenian historians should sit down quietly together to establish the facts.

Meantime fierce disputes rage between the two sides, and between their supporters in other countries.

I should state my position — carefully.  I am not an historian.  I have not studied the period or the area.  I just do not know the rights and wrongs of the debate.  Equally, I do not believe that anyone should lightly dismiss allegations of genocide.  But I would say this: I do not believe that disputed events that took place nearly a century ago, in a far country of which we know little, would be top of the priority list for most of my constituents in the East Midlands.  I do not think that they would be impressed if I chose to take time out to study these remote events.  21st century politicians surely have more immediate concerns.

So I wonder why the French parliament in 2001 decided to recognise the Armenian genocide, and has just passed a bill (not yet ratified) to punish anyone denying it.  Surely it is not for politicians to vote over the facts of history, any more than they should vote to determine the facts of science.  They should not seek to punish one side or the other in a hotly disputed debate.  Perhaps it has something to do with the votes of some half a million Armenians resident in France.

I am profoundly uncomfortable with any law against free expression.  Let me take the example of the Holocaust, denial of which is illegal in some EU countries.  I personally have no doubt whatever that the Holocaust took place.  I believe that anyone who chooses to deny this plain fact of history is either evil, or mad.  Anyone doing so should be arraigned before the bar of public opinion, and should be condemned (or ridiculed) by all decent people.  But jailed?  Perhaps we think that Holocaust denial is one thing so uniquely evil that we should set aside our concerns for freedom of speech.  Yet it is not unique: France is now criminalising denial of the Armenian massacre.  And French politicians are congratulating themselves for their brave stand in favour of “European values and human rights”.

Have they forgotten that free speech is also a human right?  Or the immortal words of their own Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it”?  Where do we stop?  The Holocaust?  The Armenian massacre?  What next?  What sort of example do we set for authoritarian regimes if we once start to jail people for their opinions (however offensive and extreme)?

Genocide is not the only issue here.  There have been half-serious suggestions that “climate deniers” should be charged with “ecocide”, and punished.   And disgracefully, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2001 that criticism of the EU was “akin to blasphemy”, and could be suppressed. 

We even had French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé yesterday blaming the UK for the recent cross-Channel war of words, and telling George Osborne to keep quiet.  Not only are French parliamentarians outlawing denial of the Armenian genocide, but the French Foreign Minister is telling the British Chancellor of the Exchequer that he may not make reasonable, measured and factual comments about the €uro crisis.  Extraordinary.  

Once you start to punish opinions, rather than deeds, you get onto a very slippery slope indeed.  The French parliamentarians can have their “European values and human rights”.  I’d rather have free speech.

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2 Responses to Human Rights — or Free Speech?

  1. Maureen Gannon says:

    Why are you surprised,
    To manage Europe = to control, is that not what Marxism is all about,
    If the Euro does survive you can expect more of the thought police being enforced,
    We will have to deny that it was tribal leaders that sold their own into slavery, if one studies the native American it was the white man who first scalped for payment , and so you can go to any part of mans history, the Jesuits slaughterd south Americans such men of god,
    History is there to learn from not to use as a tool to supress mans freedom of thought , the sooner the EEC or whatever its name is now collapses and we can get back to being an independent free thinking people the better.

  2. Stuart Rodgers says:

    Roger,

    More often than not I find myself disagreeing with you but in this instance I find myself in total agreement. Beyond the basic right to free speech, one of the key flaws to these laws is that they invariably bring more attention to those with extreme views.

    They are also totally unnecessary. Should someone choose to deny genocide, groups and individuals may take offence but that is a consequence of a free society and in reality no material harm is done. However, if an individual is attempting to incite hatred or violence by denying a genocide took place, the individual will fall foul of the many incitement laws that European states have.

    In short this has been a frivolous exercise to attract minority votes by the French at a time when surely they have bigger fish to fry?

    On a final note I would just like to say it will be a great shame to see you go as my local MEP. As I mentioned above, I rarely find myself in agreement with you but your efforts on “Climate Change” have been fantastic. Unfortunately there are too few politicians willing to challenge the “facts”.

    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all the very best for the future.

    Stuart Rodgers

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