Tuesday 7 January 2014

Perinçek Judgment on Genocide Denial

It is my pleasure to present a guest post by a familiar author to returning readers of this blog, professor Dirk Voorhoof of Ghent University has written a guest commentary on the judgment in Perinçek v. Switzerland (Appl.no. 27510/08 of 17 December 2013,only available in French so far), a case on genocide denial. Here is the commentary:
Criminal conviction for denying the existence of the Armenian “genocide” violates freedom of expression
Dirk Voorhoof

[Update: please note this case was referred to the Grand Chamber in June 2014]

On 17 December 2013 the European Court of Human Rights ruled by five votes to two that Switzerland violated the right to freedom of expression by convicting Doğu Perinçek, chairman of the Turkish Workers’ Party, for publicly denying the existence of the genocide against the Armenian people. On several occasions, Perinçek had described the Armenian genocide as “an international lie”. The Swiss courts found Perinçek guilty of racial discrimination within the meaning of Article 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code. This article punishes inter alia the denial, gross minimisation or attempt of justification of a genocide or crimes against humanity, publicly expressed with the aim of lowering or discriminating against a person or a group of persons by reference to race, ethnic background or religion in a way that affects the human dignity of the person or group of persons concerned. According to the Swiss courts, the Armenian genocide, like the Jewish genocide, was a proven historical fact, recognised by the Swiss Parliament. They found that Perinçek’s motives denying that the Ottoman Empire had perpetrated the crime of genocide against the Armenian people in 1915 and the following years, were of a racist tendency and did not contribute to the historical debate. Relying on Article 10 of the European Convention, Perinçek complained before the Strasbourg Court that the Swiss authorities had breached his freedom of expression. In an impressive judgment of 80 pages, only available in French for the moment, the Court elaborates the issue profoundly. The judgment also contains in annex, on 18 pages, a firm and extensively documented dissenting opinion by two judges.

The judgment

First the European Court found that Perinçek had not committed an abuse of his rights within the meaning of Article 17 of the Convention, prohibiting activities aimed at the destruction of others’ rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention. The Court underlined that the free exercise of the right to openly discuss questions of a sensitive and controversial nature was one of the fundamental aspects of freedom of expression and distinguished a tolerant and pluralistic democratic society from a totalitarian or dictatorial regime. The Court emphasised that the limit beyond which comments may engage Article 17 lay in the question whether the aim of the speech was to incite hatred or violence, aiming at the destruction of the rights of others. The Court considered :

“(..) la limite tolérable pour que des propos puissent tomber sous l’article 17 réside dans la question de savoir si un discours a pour but d’inciter à la haine ou à la violence. La Cour estime que le rejet de la qualification juridique des événements de 1915 n’était pas de nature en lui-même à inciter à la haine contre le peuple arménien. De toute façon, l’intéressé n’a été ni poursuivi ni puni pour incitation à la haine, qui est une infraction distincte en vertu de l’alinéa premier de l’article 261bis du code penal. Il n’apparait pas non plus que le requérant ait exprimé du mépris à l’égard des victimes des événements en cause. Dès lors, la Cour estime que le requérant n’a pas usurpé son droit de débattre ouvertement des questions, même sensibles et susceptibles de déplaire. L’exercice libre de ce droit est l’un des aspects fondamentaux de la liberté d’expression et distingue une société démocratique, tolérante et pluraliste d’un régime totalitaire ou dictatorial(§ 52).

According to the European Court, the rejection of the legal characterisation as “genocide” of the 1915 events was not such as to incite hatred against the Armenian people. The Court is of the opinion that Perinçek has not abused his right to freedom of expression in a way prohibited by Article 17 of the Convention :

“(..) on ne saurait prétendre que le requérant ait utilisé le droit à la liberté d’expression à des fins contraires à la lettre et à l’esprit de la Convention et, dès lors, détourné l’article 10 de sa vocation. Il n’y a donc pas lieu d’appliquer l’article 17 de la Convention” (§ 54).

Next, from the perspective of Article 10 of the Convention, the Court agreed with the Swiss courts that Perinçek could not have been unaware that by describing the Armenian genocide as an “international lie”, he was exposing himself on Swiss territory to a criminal sanction “prescribed by law”. The Court also found that the aim of the application of Article 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code was to protect the rights of others, namely the honour of the relatives of victims of the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian people from 1915 onwards.

The crucial question was to determine whether the prosecution and conviction of Perinçek had been  “necessary in a democratic society”.  The Court referred to its standard approach that freedom of expression includes information and ideas that can offend, shock or disturb some part of the population and that this principle is also applicable within the domain of an open debate amongst historians :

le principe (..) selon lequel  l’article 10 protège également les informations ou idées susceptibles de heurter, choquer ou inquiéter vaut également lorsqu’il s’agit, comme en l’espèce, du débat historique, ‘dans un domaine où la certitude est improbable’ (§ 102).

The Court is of the opinion that discussion of the Armenian “genocide” was of great interest to the general public and that Perinçek had engaged in speech of a historical, legal and political nature which was part of a heated debate. Accordingly this limited the margin of appreciation of the Swiss authorities in deciding whether the interference with Perinçek’s freedom of expression was justified and necessary in a democratic society :

Partant, la Cour estime que le discours du requérant était de nature à la fois historique, juridique et politique. Compte tenu de ce qui précède et notamment de l’intérêt public que revêt le discours du requérant, la Cour estime que la marge d’appréciation des autorités internes était réduite (§ 112-113).

According to the Court it is still very difficult to identify a general consensus about the qualification of the Armenian “genocide”. Only about 20 States out of the 190 worldwide have officially recognised the Armenian genocide. Furthermore the notion of “genocide” is a precisely defined and narrow legal concept, difficult to substantiate. Historical research is by definition open to discussion and a matter of debate, without necessarily giving rise to final conclusions or to the assertion of objective and absolute truths. The Court is of the opinion that:

“En tout état de cause, il est même douteux qu’il puisse y avoir un « consensus général », en particulier scientifique, sur des événements tels que ceux qui sont en cause ici, étant donné que la recherche historique est par définition controversée et discutable et ne se prête guère à des conclusions définitives ou à des vérités objectives et absolues” (§ 117).

In this connection, the Court clearly distinguished the present case from those concerning the negation of the crimes of the Holocaust, committed by the Nazi regime. In the cases of convictions for Holocaust denial the applicants had denied the historical facts even though they were sometimes very concrete, such as the existence of the gas chambers. They had denied the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime for which there had been a clear legal basis. Lastly, the acts that they had called into question had been found by an international court to be clearly established.

The Court took the view that the Swiss authorities had failed to show how there was a social need in Switzerland to punish an individual for racial discrimination on the basis of declarations challenging the legal characterisation as “genocide” of acts perpetrated on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire in 1915 and the following years. While such a pressing social need did indeed exist, according to the Court, regarding the denial of the Holocaust, this was not the case with regard to the Armenian “genocide” :

Par ailleurs, elle partage l’avis du gouvernement turc selon lequel la négation de l’Holocauste est aujourd’hui le moteur principal de l’antisémitisme. En effet, elle estime qu’il s’agit d’un phénomène qui est encore d’actualité et contre lequel la communauté internationale doit faire preuve de fermeté et de vigilance. On ne saurait affirmer que le rejet de la qualification juridique de « génocide » pour les événements tragiques intervenus en 1915 et dans les années suivantes puisse avoir les mêmes répercussions” (§ 119).

From a comparative perspective, analysing the legislation in 14 countries in Europe, it is also emphasised that Switzerland is the only country that has incriminated the denial of the Armenian genocide, while only Spain and Luxembourg have not limited their genocide denial legislation to the Holocaust. The Court observes that “(t)ous les autres États n’ont apparemment pas ressenti un «besoin social impérieux» de prévoir une telle législation” (§ 120).

The Court also mentioned the French Constitutional Council’s decision in February 2012 in which it declared unconstitutional a new provision in French law making the denial of the existence of the genocides recognised by the law a criminal offence. The French Constitutional Council found the new law to be incompatible with freedom of expression and freedom of research. In the European Court’s view, the decision of the French Constitutional Council showed that there was in principle no contradiction between the official recognition of certain events as genocide and the conclusion that it would be unconstitutional to impose criminal sanctions on persons who questioned the official view :

“Elle estime que la décision du Conseil constitutionnel montre parfaitement qu’il n’y a à priori pas de contradiction entre la reconnaissance officielle de certains événements comme le génocide, d’une part, et l’inconstitutionnalité des sanctions pénales pour des personnes mettant en cause le point de vue officiel, d’autre part. Les États qui ont reconnu le génocide arménien – pour la grande majorité d’entre eux par le biais de leurs parlements – n’ont par ailleurs pas jugé nécessaire d’adopter des lois prévoyant une répression pénale, conscients que l’un des buts principaux de la liberté d’expression est de protéger les points de vue minoritaires, susceptibles d’animer le débat sur des questions d’intérêt général qui ne sont pas entièrement établies” (§ 123).

The European Court finally referred to the General Comment nr. 34 of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on Article 19 UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stating that (l)aws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with the obligations that the Covenant imposes on States parties in relation to the respect for freedom of opinion and expression. The Covenant does not permit general prohibition of expressions of an erroneous opinion or an incorrect interpretation of past events".

In conclusion, the Court expressed its doubt that Perinçek’s conviction had been dictated by a “pressing social need”. It pointed out that it had to ensure that the sanction did not constitute a kind of censorship which would lead people to refrain from expressing criticism as part of a debate of general interest, because such a sanction might dissuade contributions to the public discussion of questions which were of interest for the life of the community. The Court found that the grounds given by the national authorities in order to justify Perinçek’s conviction were insufficient and that the domestic authorities had overstepped their narrow margin of appreciation in this case in respect of a matter of debate of undeniable public interest :

Les instances internes n’ont pas démontré en particulier que la condamnation du requérant répondait à un « besoin social impérieux » ni qu’elle était nécessaire, dans une société démocratique, pour la protection de l’honneur et les sentiments des descendants des victimes des atrocités qui remontent aux années 1915 et suivantes. Les instances internes ont donc dépassé la marge d’appréciation réduite dont elles jouissaient dans le cas d’espèce, qui s’inscrit dans un débat revêtant un intérêt public certain (§ 129).

The Court considered the criminal conviction of Perinçek for denying that the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian people in 1915 and onwards constituted genocide was unjustified. Accordingly there had been a violation of Article 10.


The refusal by the European Court to consider Perinçek’s statements as “abusive speech” under Article 17 of the Convention reflects legitimate concerns about the inherent dangers applying the so-called abuse clause in cases of freedom of political expression and debate on matters of public interest. It is indeed preferable that the application of Article 17 in freedom of expression cases remains very exceptional, as “une mesure que la Cour n’a que très rarement appliquée” (§ 47). By only accepting, eventually, the implementation of Article 17 in cases of incitement to hatred or violence, aimed at the destruction of the rights of others and disrespecting the text and spirit of the Convention, the Court prevents a too broad application of  Article 17.  One can even argue that applying the abuse clause to resolve free speech disputes is undesirable in all circumstances (see H. Cannie en D. Voorhoof, “The Abuse Clause and Freedom of Expression in the European Human Rights Convention : an Added Value for Democracy and Human Rights Protection?” NQHR Vol. 29/1, 54-83, 2011), but the European Court clearly does not share that approach, yet.

Still the Court gives the impression to be willing to accept that a mere denial of historical facts, whether they are a genocide, a crime against humanity or a massacre, can be a sufficient justification for a restriction on the right of freedom of expression and eventually for the application of Article 17. Indeed, the Court considers it “important” that Perinçek has not denied the facts of the Armenian deportations and massacres, and that he was only denying the legal qualification to be given to these facts. The Court expresses the opinion that it is “important que le requérant n’a jamais contesté qu’il y a eu des massacres et des déportations pendant les années en cause. Ce qu’il nie, en revanche, c’est la seule qualification juridique de « génocide » donnée à ces événements” (§ 51). One can however question the relevance of this consideration, as the Court’s position in the next paragraph of the judgment clearly demonstrates that a denial as such of a genocide or crimes against humanity is not excluded from the protection under Article 10. It is only when the denial incites to hatred or violence that Article 17 can be applied. It is essential for the Court “que le rejet de la qualification juridique des événements de 1915 n’était pas de nature en lui-même à inciter à la haine contre le peuple arménien. De toute façon, l’intéressé n’a été ni poursuivi ni puni pour incitation à la haine, qui est une infraction distincte en vertu de l’alinéa premier de l’article 261bis du code penal”. (§ 52)

Furthermore, the European Court rightly pointed out that this case is not about the legal, historical or political recognition of the existence of the Armenian “genocide”, but only about the necessity of the criminal conviction of Perinçek by the Swiss authorities because of the content of some speeches Perinçek held in Switzerland arguing that the massacres and deportations of Armenian people nearly 100 years ago did not deserve the qualification as genocide. It is certainly not up to the European Court to give an opinion on or to decide itself on this issue : “La Cour rappelle par ailleurs que, si la recherche de la vérité historique fait partie intégrante de la liberté d’expression, il ne lui revient pas d’arbitrer des questions historiques qui relèvent d’un débat toujours en cours entre historiens” (§ 99).  The Court emphasises that it is not dealing with the underlying facts nor the legal qualification of them as a “genocide”, as the Court “n’est amenée à se prononcer ni sur la matérialité des massacres et déportations subies par le peuple arménien aux mains de l’Empire ottoman à partir de 1915, ni sur l’opportunité de qualifier juridiquement ces faits de « génocide », au sens de l’article l’art. 261bis, alinéa 4, du code penal” (§ 111).

The essence of the message of this judgment is indeed that the legal, political and historical discussion about facts situated in history should be open and that all opinions discussing or interpreting these facts, including provocative, offensive or disrespectful opinions, should be protected by Article 10 of the Convention. The denial of historical facts or the discussion about their legal or political qualification should never, as such, be considered as a criminal offence, unless the statements or expressions also incite to hatred, discrimination or violence.

The European Court at a certain moment (§§ 114-116)  gives the impression that it is because of the lack of a general consensus in European and in the international community about whether the massacres and deportations in Armenia in 1915 and the years after constituted a genocide, that the denial by Perinçek of the existence of the Armenian genocide was acceptable. The Court however seems to be aware that accepting such an approach would risk to install by law historical truths, based on general consensus, which cannot be denied, or critically and vehemently discussed. Therefore the Court clarifies that it is doubtful anyhow whether on such issues there can be ever a general consensus : “En tout état de cause, il est même douteux qu’il puisse y avoir un « consensus général », en particulier scientifique, sur des événements tels que ceux qui sont en cause ici, étant donné que la recherche historique est par définition controversée et discutable et ne se prête guère à des conclusions définitives ou à des vérités objectives et absolues  (§ 117). The Court accepts nevertheless  one exception, and that is the criminalisation of denial of the Holocaust (§ 118), as, according to the Court, there is general consensus about the Holocaust. Still, accepting that as such the denial of the Holocaust is a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression, contrasts with the approach expressed by the UN HRC in its General Comment nr. 34. In this Comment, interpreting the actual scope, impact and application of the right to freedom of opinion and expression under 19 Article ICCPR, the HRC opposed explicitly against “memory-laws”,  emphasising that Article 19 ICCPR does not permit general prohibition of expressions of an erroneous opinion or an incorrect interpretation of past events." (§ 49). The European Court, although it referred to and even quoted from the General Comment nr. 34, missed the opportunity to elaborate on this approach. It would indeed have been preferable if the Court had made clear that the criminal prosecution and conviction for denial of historical facts, also of those on which there is general consensus, such as the Holocaust, is only justified from the perspective of Article 10 in so far as the denial of those facts at the same time intentionally incites to hatred, discrimination or violence against a person or a group of persons. In this case however, the European Court did not need to take that additional step, which would also imply that it distanced itself from its former jurisprudence finding that criminal convictions and other sanctions for denial of the Holocaust did not amount to a violation of Article 10, even in cases in which there was no clear incitement to hatred, discrimination or violence, such as in the case of Bruno Gollnisch v. France (Decision ECtHR 7 June 2011, Appl. Nr. 48135/08). In that case Gollnisch was dismissed from university because in his texts and lectures he had claimed the right as a historian to question and discuss the “official truth” about the Holocaust. The European Court however considered Gollnisch’s complaint under Article 10 ECHR inadmissible.

The threshold that the European Court invokes in its judgment of 17 December 2013 with regard to the application of Article 17 ECHR, that in discussions about (dramatic and traumatic) historical facts there is only an abuse of the right to freedom of expression when it concerns incitement to hatred or violence, should indeed be unrelated to whether there is general consensus or not about these historical facts. What can be criminalised from the perspective of Article 10 is incitement to hatred and violence, while the contestation or denial itself of historical facts, based on a (construed) general consensus should not, and should never be, defined as a criminal offence with the justification that such an interference with the right to freedom of expression is necessary in a democratic society.

Finally, it is not surprising that the judgment on the controversial issue related to the (denial of the) Armenian genocide is not delivered with unanimity. Judges Sajó (Hungary) and the president of the Chamber, Raimondi (Italy) expressed a joint concurring opinion, in which they additionally explain, justify or clarify some of the legal arguments and considerations by the Second Section’s majority in this case, finding a violation of Article 10 of the Convention. Judges Vučinić (Montenegro) and Pinto de Albuquerque (Portugal) expressed a joint partly dissenting opinion in which they argue that the conviction of Perinçek did not amount to a violation of Article 10 of the Convention : “Quoi qu’il en soit, après mûre réflexion, nous sommes parvenus à la conclusion qu’il n’y avait pas eu violation de l’article 10 dans cette affaire.

The judgment will become final on 17 March 2014, unless the case is referred  to the Grand Chamber under Article 43 of the Convention. In some statements or preliminary reactions commenting on the Court’s judgment in Perinçek v. Switzerland, it is argued why the Swiss Government should request such a referral in order to find Perinçek’s conviction necessary in a democratic society. We sincerely doubt if a judgment by the Grand Chamber could ever lead to such an outcome in this case. And if it would, it would certainly be a sad day for freedom of expression in Europe.