100 years: Why we should still strive for recognition of the Armenian genocide

9 December 2015

This year marks the hundred year anniversary of one of the most awful, barbaric acts that humanity has ever seen. During the First World War, the Young Turk Ottoman government perpetrated genocide not only by mass killings, but by instigating five waves of deportations of Armenians from their historical homeland, which Talaat Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of the Interior knew would be deadly, as Fuat Dundar, an expert on the late-Ottoman period notes:

Talaat Pasha would make the decision to deport the Armenians to [the] regions where he knew they would “all be dead of hunger”. Such a decision, unprecedented in Ottoman history, signifies a collective punishment for the Armenian population: it was the transfer of an “incorrigible” people to a region that was “uncultivatable”.[1]

Similarly, Ronald Grigor Suny, who studied the diary of American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. observes that Talaat came to Morgenthau to explain that for all the dangers and evils that the Armenians had brought the Turks, that “we have therefore come to the irrevocable decision that we shall make them powerless before this war had ended”.[2]  All told, somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The purpose of this blog is not to add to the overwhelming weight of evidence that show that the Ottoman Turks did indeed commit a genocide, nor is it to retell the stories of the Armenian death marches, rapes, and children starving to death in the desert. My aim is to argue that the continued non-recognition and, in some cases, denial of this genocide is morally bankrupt and a continuing part of the actions that were committed one hundred years ago.

In Turkey today, it remains the prevailing opinion that the actions of 1915 did not constitute genocide and that the predominant world and academic opinion can be explained by the Armenian lobby having been successful in selling its side of the story. Ironically, the opposite is true. Fatma Müge Göçek observes that in the years after the genocide “an official narrative on 1915 emerged which placed the blame for the Turkish massacres of the Armenians squarely on the latter’s seditious activities, a stand that persists to this day”.[3] Furthermore, she argues that the official historiography developed by successive Turkish governments “selectively retold the historical events before 1915 in a way that both legitimated what happened to the Anatolian Armenians and took pains to demonstrate that the same, if not more, happened to the Turks as well”.[4]  That is to say, not only were the Armenians responsible for their massacre, but the Turks were the real victims.

The timings of the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the ensuing six years play an important role in how this official narrative was created. As the new Republic of Turkey was created, Göçek notes that “leaders made a conscious decision to concentrate on the nation’s future, on progress, and on catching up with the contemporary civilisation signified by the West. In doing so, they consciously omitted and repressed the past”.[5]  In short, the new leaders tried to bury their shame by acting as if it did not exist. Of course, such a heinous event cannot be hidden, but, as Suny notes: “Even though the denialist account fails both empirically and morally, its claims shaped much of the debate”.[6] During the decades between the genocide and the genesis of the academic field of ‘genocide studies’ in the late 1980s, there were very few arguing for the Armenian cause, instead the world community tacitly accepted the Turkish narrative. However, as scholars began to dig deeper into the actions of 1915, a wider group of non-Turkish researchers began to reach a consensus the Ottomans had committed a genocide.


As a result of this academic consensus, many states and institutions began to officially recognise the genocide, beginning with Uruguay in 1965 – fifty years after the atrocities – before Cyprus in 1975, before a large and steady flow of countries in the 1990s to today. Today, the Armenian National Institute notes that 27 different states have recognised the genocide, including France, Germany and Canada. Neither the United Kingdom nor America recognise it, although the devolved powers in Scotland, and Wales, as well as 43 American States have decided to go further than their national governments and parliaments. Furthermore, the European Parliament has made four resolutions recognising the genocide, and the Council of Europe has made two. Many countries, such as Italy, Cyprus and Slovakia criminalise denial of it. However, it remains problematic that two of the most influential countries in the world will neither formally recognise the genocide or put pressure on Turkey to come to terms with its past. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Barak Obama promised that he would, if elected president, recognise the plight of the Armenians. However, he has since repeatedly refused to use the word ‘genocide’. When HART CEO Baroness Caroline Cox raised spoke in the House of Lords this summer, she was told that there were no plans for another review of British policy towards the issue.

This raises the important question of why states like America and Britain have not recognised the actions of 1915. The answer lies in the strategic importance of Turkey, especially after the end of the Second World War. In 1952, the genesis of the Cold War, Turkey joined NATO and became an ally of Britain and America at a time when Western influence was at its lowest in the Middle East. Turkey became the key ally in the Middle East and issues that did not pertain to national security were often dropped. Even today, Turkey’s geopolitical and religious position makes it a vital player in the instabilities in the region. Many of the concerned countries do not want to ruffle the feathers of what they see as an invaluable ally. Furthermore, the Turkish lobby commands incredible power, especially in America. This year The Independent reported that “The Turkish government has given $3m to US universities…The most controversial appointment has been at Princeton where Dr Heath Lowry, who… claims that the account of the genocide by [Morgenthau] comprises [of] “crude half-truths and outright falsehoods…from cover to cover”. The Turkish are still trying to use their cash and influence to reassert their false narrative.

It looks as though the chances of changing this narrative within Turkey are slim, although there have been significant advances in the past decade. Last year, on the 99th anniversary of the genocide, then-Prime Minister Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of the deceased and described their treatment as ‘inhumane’. However, it is worth noting that the Armenian National Committee of America dismissed his words as a ‘repackaging’ of Turkey’s denials. Similarly, in recent years there has been a small group of 200 Turkish academics and newspaper columnists who co-signed a declaration titled ‘I apologise’. It read:

My conscience cannot accept the ignorance and denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and – on my own behalf – I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers – and I apologise to them.

This declaration was very important – it showed that there are those within Turkey who wish to make clear that their ancestors’ hands are dirty. In recent years there has been a gradual change within Turkey to begin to think critically about their country’s history – Turkish scholars and activists such as Cengiz Aktar and Ragip Zarakolu openly speak about the genocide, despite risking legal troubles (Article 305 of the Turkish penal code forbids referring to it as a genocide). It is reported that as many as 9% – or 7 million – Turks openly express desire for the genocide to be recognised. However, the good of this sentiment is undone by Erdogan, who repeatedly shuns any call for an apology, stating that “I find it unreasonable to apologise when there is no reason”. Erdogan, who is now President, has repeated this stance a lot this year, when in April he scorned the European Parliament, Pope Francis, as well as France, Germany, Russia, an Austria for their affirmation of the genocide on its anniversary.

Credit: The Telegraph
Credit: The Telegraph

An important question remains – why is the recognition of an act committed a century ago so important? Nobody in Turkey was directly responsible for the atrocities, so why should they take ownership? Similarly, why should the British and American governments lose political capital and potentially alienate an important state?

To answer this, we must look at the very nature of genocide itself. It would be wrong to say that genocide starts and ends with the murder of a group of people. Rather, as Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch argues, it is a ten-stage process: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and then, finally, denial. He writes that “denial is the final state that lasts throughout and always follows a genocide…They deny that they committed any crimes and often blame what happened on the victims.” Denial is not just something that happens afterwards, it is a constitutive part of the genocide. It is continuing to persecute those who lost their lives and attempts to stop their families from gaining closure. It is the final stage of trying to wipe the Armenians from the earth. It may be true that no Turkish people alive today took part in the extermination one hundred years ago, but anyone who denies its existence shares moral culpability. This point was aptly put this year by Lebanese parliamentarian Ghassan Moughaibar, who said that “genocides kill twice, [the] second time by silence”. The people of Turkey today can end the genocide, once and for all.

If Turkey were to do so, there would be many positive, practical implications. Mustafa Akyol asserts that the by refusing to acknowledge the genocide this April, Erdogan lost an opportunity to rekindle the reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, that begin to thaw in 2008 with Abdullah Gül’s ‘Football Diplomacy’, but has since cooled again. Although recognition of the genocide will not in itself settle the issues that divide these two countries, it would be an incredibly powerful symbol. I am convinced of the importance that symbolic gestures can make in international relations – Nixon in China, Sadat’s plane landing in Jerusalem – and how it can alter the intersubjective identities of states, potentially providing an important re-ignition to a frozen peace process. It is entirely plausible that Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide could do just that.

Finally, countries such as Britain and America must do everything they can to help this happen, both to finally put an end to the hundred year genocide, and to allow the two neighbouring nations to grow past it together. This requires recognition of the atrocities at the legislative, executive, and judicial level. If we wish to be a country that is taken seriously on human rights, we must not shy away from doing what is right for political convenience. One hundred years is too long, we must not let it be another hundred.

All footnote references from: Suny, R. G., Göçek, F. M., and Naimark, N.M. [eds], A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the end of the Ottoman Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011

[1] Dundar, F., Pouring a People into the Desert, p.280

[2] Suny, R. G., Writing Genocide, p.20

[3] Göçek, F. M., Reading Genocide, p.43

[4] Ibid. p. 52

[5] Ibid. p. 42

[6] Suny, R. G., Writing Genocide, p.24

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