Taking sides on genocide

October 13, 2006
Source: Haaretz (Israel)

By Jonas Attenhofer

On an official visit to Turkey, Swiss justice minister Christoph Blocher expressed sympathy for his hosts' anger at Switzerland's prosecution of two Turkish men who publicly denied the Armenian Genocide. The two, a historian and a politician, are being prosecuted under a Swiss anti-racism law.

Blocher, leader of the right-wing People's Party, also mentioned during his visit that the Department of Justice he heads was working toward a revision of the law, which he said caused him pain as well. These remarks caused an uproar in Swiss political and academic circles, which broadly support the law that withstood a referendum in 1994. Aside from racism in general, the law explicitly prohibits the public denial, grave belittlement, or attempted justification of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Upon his return to Switzerland, Blocher stated his intention of working to exclude from the anti-racism law the section that prohibits denial of a genocide. He was quoted as saying that this particular passage could impair freedom of expression, as well as Switzerland's relations with other states. Regarding freedom of expression, the question is whether a law that prohibits the racially, ethnically or religiously motivated violation of the human dignity of particular individuals, represents a serious limitation of individual freedom.
The president of the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, Giusep Nay, sees the law as a necessary limitation to freedom of expression. He sees no threat to this freedom as expressed in the Swiss Constitution and the United Nations Charter. A state's interest in limiting this basic right was explained by the Armenian Republic's ambassador to Switzerland, who observed that by allowing the denial of past genocides, the perpetrators remain unpunished by public opinion, and the prevention of future genocides is undermined.

The Swiss law covers only public statements. In a case in which a group of Swiss soldiers gave the Nazi salute and expressed racist sentiments while serving in the army, a military court recently applied the term "public" to expressions made during military training. If the anti-racism law were rescinded, it would become easier to dismiss historic facts surrounding a genocide - effectively favoring freedom of expression over the moral integrity of minority groups. Equally controversial is the surrender of their moral integrity by dropping the law in favor of good relations with states that might disagree with it.

In the case of Switzerland and Turkey, Blocher's call to weaken the law has not earned much support among fellow cabinet members, whose scheduled visits to Turkey have been cancelled by the host country over frictions about the question of the Armenian Genocide. The Swiss National Council had previously recognized the Armenian Genocide, and this may be seen as the official Swiss position.

Blocher was sharply criticized by his colleagues in the seven-member cabinet for disagreeing with a Swiss law while in a foreign country, for not aligning his statements with the official positions of the joint cabinet and for not fully coordinating his activities abroad with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As minister of justice, Blocher was not involved in any official negotiations, but merely accepted an invitation by his Turkish counterpart on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the establishment of Turkish civil law, which is modeled on the Swiss Civil Code (ZGB). At the ceremony, the dean of the faculty of law of Ankara University mentioned the constructive role Western European law codes played in the shift from an Islamic society to a modern, secular one.

Should neutral Switzerland engage in Armenian-Turkish mediation in the future, recognition of the Armenian Genocide will unlikely be subject to negotiations. Upholding its humanitarian tradition, Switzerland can be expected to maintain a firm stance on the issue. This also seems to be the intention of France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Angela Merkel, who want to make the issue a precondition for Turkey to enter the European Union. France is presently discussing implementation of a law that explicitly prohibits denial of the Armenian Genocide.

The situation could have significance for the Middle East. The European Union will eventually share a border with Iran. When a Western European country considers weakening its stance against public denial of the Holocaust, how is the message perceived in the Middle East?

The writer is a law student at the universities of Zurich and Berne.