A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in relation to a Turkish national has kicked up a new row on anti-racism legislation. The court ruled in December that Switzerland violated the right to freedom of speech of the Turkish national Doğu Perinçek by convicting him for calling the idea of an Armenian genocide an “international lie”.
In 2007, a court in the Swiss Canton of Vaud had found Perinçek
guilty of racial discrimination as defined by Section 261 of the Swiss
Criminal Code, ruling that the Armenian genocide was a proven historical
fact. Already in 2003, the Swiss National Council had acknowledged the
Perinçek subsequently appealed in Switzerland’s Federal Court, which
dismissed his claims. After that, Perinçek took his case to the ECHR in
In its ruling, the ECHR found that Perinçek’s conviction by the Swiss
court was wrong, as it violated Article 10 of the European Convention
of Human Rights on freedom of expression. The court argued that Perinçek
had never questioned the massacres and deportations perpetrated by the
Ottoman Empire during the First World War, but had denied their
characterisation as “genocide”. He didn’t mean to incite hatred against
the Armenian people, the ECHR pointed out.
In fact, Perinçek’s view corresponds with Turkey’s official stance
that is widely shared by the Turkish public, all main political parties
as well as the state-run Historical Society. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry
called the ECHR decision “a victory for the rule of law.”
Schools and universities in Turkey teach that the killings of
Armenians were neither deliberate, nor orchestrated by the Ottoman
leadership in Istanbul. Further, Turkish historians doubt that up to 1.5
million Armenians had died, as many Western scholars claim.
However, Turkish estimates vary, starting around 10,000 Armenian
casualties. Turkish historians argue that most of the death occurred due
to illness and malnutrition.
Beyond Turkey’s eastern border, lobbying for worldwide genocide
recognition is a fundamental part of Armenia’s foreign policy. Until
today, diverging interpretations of what happened in Armenia during and
after the First World War strain bilateral relations.
The ECHR highlighted that it wasn’t called upon to address either the
veracity of the massacres and deportations perpetrated against the
Armenian people or the appropriateness of legally characterising those
acts as “genocide”. It doubted that there could be a consensus on the
The Switzerland-Armenia Association (SAA) said it was “deeply disappointed and appalled by the ECHR verdict.” Dominique de Buman, Swiss national councillor and co-president of the
SAA told IPS: “The ECHR ruling isn’t just a setback for human dignity,
but also contradicts a European Council Framework Decision that ordered
member states to ensure that publicly condoning, denying or grossly
trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes
Such framework decisions do not pose a legal basis for the ECHR,
however. De Buman also referred to the UN Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. “Don’t forget that the
convention was adopted in reaction to the Holocaust as well as the
Armenian genocide,” he told IPS.
The ECHR ruling has sparked a debate in Switzerland on whether or not
the government should appeal the decision and if and how Swiss
anti-racism legislation may be amended.
Councillor De Buman told IPS he was optimistic that an appeal could
lead to a further examination of the case, as the ECHR ruling wasn’t
unanimous: “Two of the seven judges had expressed a joint concurring
opinion. They stated that there existed an international consensus
regarding the characterisation of the massacres against the Armenian
Judges András Sajó and Guido Raimondi would welcome a Swiss appeal to
the Grand Chamber, as so far the court has never taken a view on the
massacres and deportations of the Armenians. “It’s our symbolic and
moral obligation to define and qualify these events,” they wrote.
Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice hasn’t yet taken a decision in
The ECHR ruling plays into the hands of right-wing groups such as the
Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who have repeatedly tried to knock down the
country’s anti-racism legislation. Consequently, the party’s long-time
leader Christoph Blocher demanded a change of the criminal code.
Legally, the ECHR ruling doesn’t force Switzerland to amendments.
Silvia Bär, the SVP’s secretary general, told IPS that the party is
preparing a parliamentary request to specify or even abolish Swiss
anti-racism legislation. “We reject racism. However, the current
application of the legislation is getting increasingly absurd and
incorrectly limits the right to freedom of expression.”
According to Bär, the anti-racism legislation is being misused to
discipline and sanction unwelcome opinions. In addition, the SVP demands
that Switzerland resigns from the International Convention on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination and that it dissolves the Federal
Commission against Racism (EKR).
Martine Brunschwig Graf, National Councillor for the Liberals and
President of the EKR has doubts about these intentions. “The ECHR ruling
is complex and doesn’t put the Swiss anti-racism paragraph in
question,” she told IPS. From 1995 to 2012, Swiss courts have sentenced
accused persons in 310 cases under that paragraph. Brunschwig Graf calls the legislation an indispensable instrument:
“The fight against racism requires prevention at all levels, but also
repression if certain limits are surpassed.”
Among the other parties, the Swiss anti-racism legislation enjoys
broad support. Hansjörg Fehr of the Social Democrats told the Swiss
national radio that if the criminal code was to be changed, then “we
need a passage that explicitly punishes the denial of the Armenian
The debate is expected to ignite at the next parliamentary session in March.