Akhavan, intervening lawyer in the ‘Genocide Case’: “The worst crimes begin with words”

Payam Akhavan, lawyer for the Human Rights Association and the Truth Justice Memory Centre, intervening in the Perinçek v. Switzerland case from Turkey, along with the Toronto-based Zoryan Institute: “Instead of presenting a defence here, Turkey should be prosecuting the likes of Doğu Perinçek and the Talat Pasha Committee.”

(STRASBOURG) Two civilian society organizations from Turkey are also interveners in the Perinçek v. Switzerland case. The Human Rights Association and the Truth Justice Memory Centre, along with the Toronto-based Zoryan Institute, will present a written opinion arguing that Perinçek’s accusation that the 1915 Armenian massacres are “an international lie” is an act carried out with discriminatory motives. We spoke to lawyer Payam Akhavan, who is the lawyer for the civilian society organizations.

First of all, could you please tell us a bit about yourself? How would you like us to introduce you to our readers?

I am a Professor of International Law at McGill University in Canada and a Fellow at Oxford University in England. I was formerly a UN prosecutor at The Hague working on the Srebrenica genocide against Bosnian Muslims and also appeared in many high-profile cases before international courts including the Libyan case against Saif Al-Islam Ghaddafi at the International Criminal Court. I am an Iranian exile and also the founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre. In the Perinçek case, I am the counsel of the Human Rights Association and the Truth Justice Memory Centre that have filed a joint submission with the Toronto-based Zoryan Institute, arguing that Perinçek’s accusation that the 1915 Armenian massacres is “an international lie” had discriminatory motives and incites hatred against Armenians in Turkey.

I was checking the first pages of the dailies in Turkey and I saw your name in Aydınlık, which belongs to Perinçek. The report states that you are trying to connect the Perinçek v. Switzerland case to the Ergenekon case. Could you please elaborate on this? What is the essence of the written submissions of the three NGOs?

A: The original Swiss judgment convicting Mr. Perinçek of incitement to discrimination for calling the 1915 Armenian massacres an “international lie” refers to his membership of the Talat Pasha Committee. The initial European Court decision in favour of Perinçek that is now under appeal fails to appreciate the significance of this Committee in concluding that there was no pressing need to prohibit Perinçek’s statements, which the Court concluded only referred to the legal classification of those atrocities as “genocide”. Anyone familiar with the Talat Pasha Committee and Mr. Perinçek’s activities would obviously see that the Court failed to appreciate the context within which those statements were made. The European Parliament has adopted a resolution referring to the Talat Pasha Committee as “xenophobic and racist” and called on Turkey to prohibit the hateful activities of this organization. In the Ergenekon judgment, the Istanbul Penal Court found a link between the terrorist activities of Ergenekon, including the assassination of Hrant Dink in January 2007, and the activities of the Talat Pasha Committee. The Court finds that Mr. Perinçek played a leadership role in Ergenekon, that he was in charge of “psychological war” and “propaganda”, and that he used “Armenian genocide allegations” as an excuse to incite hatred. In this context, it is impossible to conclude that Mr. Perinçek was merely engaged in an academic legal debate about whether the 1915 massacres were genocide or not. The context, within which he made the statement, and his intended audience, leaves no doubt that he had discriminatory motives. It is important for the Grand Chamber in this appeal to appreciate this context. It is of course open to Mr. Perinçek, and Turkey as an intervening State, to explain to the Grand Chamber why the Ergenekon judgment’s findings, and more broadly the notorious reputation of the Talat Pasha Committee in the name of which he had travelled to Switzerland for this confrontation, is irrelevant in construing his motives.

“Turkey should instead prosecute the Talat Pasha Committee”

I find your third-party opinion very significant regarding the Grand Chamber hearing; what would say about the importance of this submission? This case is about freedom of expression, and human rights organizations from Turkey are intervening it, what does this tells us?

A: The recognition of historical injustices against the Armenians is not an Armenian issue. It is a human rights issue. It is about creating a democratic and tolerant culture and the measure of any civilization is its treatment of minorities. That is why it is so important that the coalition making this submission before the Court includes both leading Turkish and Armenian human rights groups that are united in their commitment to ending incitement to hatred. It is unfortunate that the likes of Hrant Dink were convicted of “insulting Turkishness” and made into targets for assassination simply because they were working for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. Instead, Turkey should be prosecuting the likes of Mr. Perinçek and the Talat Pasha Committee that celebrate the man who is referred to as the “Ottoman Hitler”. I think that those that speak with hatred and violence perpetrate the biggest insult to the Turkish people. Turkey has a great, ancient, rich, and diverse civilization, and its full potential will only be realized when it embraces this diversity, which is a source of its strength, rather than weakness. Those Turks and Armenians that can rise above these differences and engage in respectful dialogue deserve our praise and support. That is why this intervention is not about the legal debates about whether to call the events of 1915 as genocide, or some other legal label. The question is, ‘Why do Turkish school books portray Armenians as traitors and liars?’ or ‘Why is there so much propaganda and brainwashing of Turkish children so that they grow up thinking Armenians are “enemies” of Turkey, rather than part of its rich history?” Human rights law protects freedom of speech, not incitement to hatred. Human rights law actually requires States to prohibit hate speech. That is why this intervention by human rights groups is not against freedom of speech, but rather, against hatred and violence that tears apart the diversity of Turkey and undermines tolerance and progress for a great nation.

Depending on the Grand Chamber’s decision, what can we expect from the future, in the contexts of freedom of expression, genocide denialism and combat against racism and hate speech? 

A: I think we need to move beyond sterile legalistic debates about legal labels and understand the fundamental human reality that in 1915, 1.5 million Ottoman subjects that had lived in those lands for more than a thousand years, were eliminated. Yes, there was suffering throughout the Ottoman Empire, and atrocities affecting many groups, but the Armenian nation was completely destroyed. For the past one hundred years, there have been efforts to erase any trace of their historical presence, to pretend they never existed, or that they were punished for being “traitors” and “enemies” of the Turkish people. But the reality is that thousands and thousands of women and children, innocent civilians, were murdered, raped, deported to the desert where they starved to death. This is a traumatized nation; now spread throughout the world, carrying deep wounds from the past, wounds that must be healed. Political leaders that respond to this need for healing through hatred and violence show their own weakness. A powerful leader is a tolerant leader; a courageous leader is not afraid of the truth. Extremism is the same no matter what clothing it wears. In Bosnia, the Serbian nationalists incited hatred against Muslims. In other places Muslims incite hatred against Christians. It doesn't matter who the victim is, because the worst crimes begin with words, words that dehumanize others and justify their persecution. The extremists in Turkey are holding Turkey hostage to the past, hostage to hatred. In a world where we face challenges like war and terrorism and hunger and poverty, in a world with so much suffering, the extremists are busy with their paranoid conspiracy theories, creating imaginary enemies, and creating the context for more Hrant Dinks to be killed in cold blood; for ensuring that what little remains of the Armenian community in Turkey will disappear.


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Fatih Gökhan Diler