STRASBOURG — Payam Akhavan is a Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University. He was previously a UN prosecutor at The Hague and has served as counsel in leading cases before international courts and tribunals. He spoke to CivilNet about his representation of a Coalition of Armenian and Turkish NGOs that have intervened in the Perinçek case, which will be heard by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on January 28th. Dogu Perinçek, an ultra-nationalist Turkish politician and member of the Talat Pasha Committee, had been convicted in Switzerland for incitement to discrimination for having called the Armenian Genocide an “international lie”. Before the European Court, he succeeded in arguing that his freedom of expression had been violated, and that he was not promoting hatred, because he was only questioning the legal classification of the events of 1915, which he did not deny. After a campaign by Armenian and Turkish NGOs, the Swiss Government was persuaded to appeal the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court, to try and reverse this flawed decision.
Professor Akhavan, how did you become involved with the Perinçek case?
I was first alerted to the Perinçek decision by my friends at the Zoryan Institute in Toronto. They were very concerned about this legal precedent being used by the Turkish Government as well as ultranationalist politicians to argue that the European Court denies that the events of 1915 constituted genocide. That of course is not what the Court said, but its decision was twisted and misrepresented, to reinforce the long-standing policy of denial and incitement to hatred against Armenians. Zoryan led a costly campaign to publish advertisements in Swiss newspapers in both French and German and to cooperate with other Armenian organizations to persuade Switzerland to appeal the case. They had to overcome the opposition of Turkey which of course did not want the case to be appealed. Turkey had intervened in support of Perinçek even though its own courts, the Istanbul Penal Court, had convicted him of being a leading member of the Ergenekon terrorist organization! It is important that Turkish NGOs such as the Turkish Human Rights Association, the oldest and biggest human rights NGO in Turkey with thousands of members, had also written to the Swiss Government in favour of an appeal. Once Switzerland agreed to appeal the case, we decided to put together a coalition of Armenian and Turkish NGOs to intervene in the case. We thought that the composition of the coalition itself would be a powerful message to the Court that this was not an “Armenian” issue; it was a human rights issue. Perinçek was not interested in academic debates on international law, and whether the term “genocide” applies to the events of 1915 or not. He is an ultranationalist politician whose platform is incitement to hatred against Armenians, based on paranoid conspiracy theories and historical revisionism. It was also imperative for the Court to know the details of the Ergenekon judgment and for this we needed qualified and dedicated Turkish lawyers and activists and translators and months of work in coordination with knowledgeable and diligent researchers at Zoryan and the lawyers in London and Oxford to go through the 17,000 pages of the decision, the international case-law, and complex arguments, to find what was most relevant to establishing the discriminatory motives of Perinçek. So in the end, the coalition was Zoryan, or rather then Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, which is under Zoryan’s umbrella, together with the Turkish Human Rights Association and the Truth Justice Memory Centre in Istanbul, and the combined efforts of this team, I think, had outstanding results in terms of the quality and importance of the submission, which could have significant impact on the Court’s decision, and which represents evidence that no other party has brought forward in this case. In other words, without this intervention, without this NGO coalition, the facts of the Ergenekon judgment, and Perinçek’s true agenda, would not have come to light.
Is the case about the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide? What is really at issue?