LONDON — This time Amal Clooney is taking on one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century.
The star human-rights lawyer is appearing at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, this week in the name of the victims of the Armenian genocide, a slaughter that saw some 1.5 million people murdered 100 years ago.
Adolf Hitler would later claim the unprecedented massacre as an inspiration in his brutal quest for lebensraum, but even today Turkey claims the numbers have been inflated and insists that those who perished died in the midst of a great war, not a systematic genocide.
One such outspoken Turkish politician was convicted in a Swiss court in 2008 after giving an inflammatory speech in Switzerland, a country that shares Germany’s legal ban on denying genocide. His conviction was later overturned during an appeal, in which lawyers representing the Turkish government argued that the Armenian genocide was not a matter of “general consensus” like the Holocaust.
Enter Amal Clooney, who is demanding that the European Court of Human Rights recognize the suffering of the Armenians. The tiny land-locked country, found in the mountains west of Azerbaijan, has rarely been championed by such an influential ambassador, assuming you don’t count Kim Kardashian, whose great-great grandparents fled the genocide.
Despite the drab municipal setting in the notoriously dull French city of Strasbourg, Clooney was greeted outside the court by the kind of paparazzi presence you might see at a Kardashian product launch. The red coat she had worn en route from Los Angeles had already inspired reams of media coverage, so The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent asked what she thought of the fashion critiques. She laughed and replied: “I’m wearing Ede & Ravenscroft.” Not a fashion house, Ede & Ravenscroft, which describes itself as the world’s oldest tailor, is Britain’s leading producer of graduation gowns and legal robes.
Clooney’s boss, former UN appeals judge Geoffrey Robertson, who writes for The Daily Beast, is one of the foremost experts on the Armenian genocide, which he has covered in two books. An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? was published last year.
He appears delighted by his protégée’s ability to generate media interest in his legal battles. The founder of Doughty Street Chambers said he was pleased by coverage of her court appearance. “It is not about white gloves or yachts,” he said. “It puts the record straight: She is a human-rights lawyer.”
Her husband, actor George Clooney, has also added the weight of his celebrity to one of Robertson and Amal’s other legal campaigns: to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
Clooney was expected in court Thursday to continue the case against Dogu Perinçek, the chairman of the Turkish Workers’ Party. She said the court’s decision to overturn Perinçek’s conviction for genocide denial was “simply wrong.”
“It cast doubt on the reality of genocide that Armenian people suffered a century ago,” she said. “Armenia must have its day in court. The stakes could not be higher for the Armenian people.”
Perinçek’s guilt was overturned in a 2013 European Court of Human Rights ruling on the grounds of freedom of speech. Clooney said it was hypocritical of the Turkish government to use such a defense “because of its disgraceful record on freedom of expression.”
She will ask the court for permission to present overwhelming evidence that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide under cover of the First World War. She will produce photographs from the time that show concentration camps, beheadings, and burnt bodies. France, Great Britain, and Russia issued a joint condemnation in May 1915 against the “crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization.” Only Turkey has continued to deny that a genocide took place, although the extermination of the Armenians has never assumed its rightful place among the most notorious acts of human cruelty.
In a 1939 note addressing his decision to invade Poland and wipe out the remaining Poles, Hitler reasoned that the world seemed to have quickly forgiven the extraordinary act of Turkish barbarism. “I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space [“lebensraum”] which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Clooney and Robertson hope that all over the world, people will once again speak of the Armenians.