Parliament Can Offer History More Than Just Legislation

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“It’s a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.” – Teju Cole, Open City

Amnesty International is concerned about a new French law that would “…[make] it a criminal offense to publicly question events labeled ‘genocide’…”. The bill cleared the upper house of the French Parliament on 23 January 2012 and could be signed into law by President Nicolas Sarkozy as early as the end of this month.

The international human rights group notes that such “…legislation would criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression that is seen as ‘outrageously’ contesting or trivializing historical events or their characterisation.” Such legislation would also be largely redundant in the broader context of France’s current laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which can classify certain forms of historical denial as hate-speech.

The new law appears to be transparently aimed at Turkey, for the would-be European Union entrant’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge the violence directed against Armenians, from 1915-16 and through to the final days of the then Ottoman Empire in 1923, as genocidal. The Armenian Genocide, recognized by at least twenty members of the international community, resulted in significant displacement and approximately one and a half million deaths.

This new French law follows a 2001 declaration by the French Parliament that officially designated the event as meeting the requisite definition of genocide.

If passed, the law would likely affect French citizens (from the native born to the newly arrived) far more than it might entice Turkey to examine and retract its official position. It could also trigger a perilous international race to the bottom, with respective states moving to tighten their own laws out of fear that they are not strict enough.

While it remains to be seen whether or not the would-be law will even survive judicial scrutiny (a group of senators have already petitioned the nation’s top court for a review), it asks us to question whether such legislation is the most appropriate means of protecting such historical events and history in general.

The basic intention of the law appears to be no different than censure, the other central power held by parliamentary bodies, used to denounce unbecoming behaviour exhibited by their own peers, state officials and citizens, and even those on the international stage. While such resolutions are generally non-binding, they can certainly serve memory well by turning any given issue into a minor political scandal at the very least.

Of course, France cannot actually force Turkey to change their official policy but they might better serve the memory of this event with a series of parliamentary resolutions (similar to their 2001 declaration) than with drastic domestic legislation. After all, this is generally the same traditional ‘shout-down’ approach we take with individuals who elect to deny historical events in the face of clear, overwhelming evidence.

A persistent campaign of parliamentary censure would not only serve history by allowing the world to revisit significant events (like this and others) but also provide a space of recognition and consciousness, however conceptual, for those who still reside within the borders of a state that has erased their past. It would also work to establish parliament as not just a place where a nation’s laws are drafted, debated, and passed, but as a welcome environment for historical consciousness.



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One thought on “Parliament Can Offer History More Than Just Legislation

  1. Nicolaas Vergunst

    Thanks for your useful update and clear oversight. Speaking about our past, openly and freely, is something we should all be able to share, yes, and while the law is required to protect that right, publicly, it cannot prohibit how others choose to remember. Memories can’t be illegalised.

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