Armenia and Turkey: forgetting genocide

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
12 October 2009

It is difficult to explain under what circumstances a group of individuals decides to forget the greatest tragedy experienced by the community of which it forms part. For this reason, the decision of the Armenian government to disregard the genocide that the Armenian people suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915-23 is a shocking phenomenon worthy of special attention. What then accounts for the approach of the current government in Yerevan?

Also in openDemocracy on Armenia, Turkey and genocide:

Sabine Freizer, "Armenia's emptying democracy" (30 November 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Vicken Cheterian, "The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue"(23 January 2007)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Taner Akçam, "Turkey and history: shoot the messenger" (16 August 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Armenia's mixed messages" (15 October 2008)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

Armenia and Turkey, after two years of negotiations mediated by Switzerland, have agreed upon two protocols that were signed on 10 October 2009. They concern, respectively, the establishment of diplomatic relations and the fostering of bilateral relations. 

The first presents several problems, which are likely in time to be resolved so that the protocol eventually can be implemented. Undoubtedly, and sooner rather than later, Armenia and Turkey will normalise their ties (as has frequently occurred in so many other cases in the diplomatic history of nations, including former enemies). However, a period devoted to the generation of mutual trust and reciprocal commitments might have generated a framework free from suspicion and fears, oriented towards a more solid opening of bilateral links.

The second protocol is incomprehensible and inadmissible, for it proposes the creation of a sub-committee to examine the "historical dimension" of the relationship between Turks and Armenians. The only "historical dimension" that can be examined is a fact that is irrefutable for everyone alike: the genocide. This protocol, therefore, aims at "examining" the occurrence of the genocide. The accompanying proposal constitutes the greatest historical setback to the Armenian cause; but neither is it useful for new generations of Turks, who need to build their present and future on the basis of the truth of their history.

A great number of testimonies of many individuals, Armenian and non-Armenian, provide eloquent evidence of the events of 1915 and after; many images of the events survive, and have been circulated all over the world. The official documents and reports of the time contain copious accounts of what happened, the character and dimensions of an epic atrocity. The Armenian genocide is a fact, not a debate. 

Between history and politics

The history of subterfuge and denial in the recognition of the genocide includes the fate of a report submitted to the United Nations sub-committee on human rights in 1973 and 1975 by a Rwandan, Nicodème Ruhashyankiko; this pointed out "the existence of abundant impartial documentation related to the massacre of the Armenian people, considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century". When the report reached the UN committee on human rights in 1979, the paragraph had disappeared. In 1985, another report produced by the British researcher Benjamin Whitaker restored the explicit recognition of the genocide experienced by the Armenians. 

In the 1990s, an important number of individual nations recognised the Armenian genocide via legislative laws or executive resolutions. The nascent Republic of Armenia, which attained its independence in 1991, had little to do with this; it was the diaspora that, after decades of efforts, succeeded in reaffirming the cause of the genocide. The diaspora was always ahead of the state in this matter. For the Armenian people, the issue of the genocide has always been a social rather than a state matter. However, it was always clear that its defence was also a guarantee of the survival of the Armenian state. 

In this context, the second Armenian-Turkish protocol is opprobrious. Turkey itself has taken no steps towards acknowledging the genocide, yet the government of Armenia itself calls it into question. This raises a number of questions: about the role of Armenia's government and its internal balance, the attitude of Armenian citizens towards the issue of the genocide, the extent of a desire in Yerevan to heal wounds, the absence of a sense of contrition or responsibility in Turkey, the effect of the economic crisis in Armenia on political calculation, and the replacement of the moralpolitik of the fight against genocide by the realpolitik of the oblivion of genocide.

Perhaps a combination of the latter two motives might explain the position of the Armenian government. This would interpret the move in terms of the short-term and material benefits of certain domestic sectors in Armenia, whose position is reinforced by an exaggerated perception of national weakness. If this is the case, it requires a response: a coalition of the diaspora, civic actors in Armenia and influential world opinion in defence of memory and against the pragmatic silencing of horror. 

The Armenian genocide was one of the first and cruellest genocides of the 20th century. Its disdain may be the prelude to widespread impunity. The solitude of the victims - past and present - is the prologue to more barbarism.


Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle " (9 February 2007

"A Latin American's memo to Bush" (9 March 2007)

"After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

"The global drug war: beyond prohibition" (4 December 2007

"Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe" (7 October 2008)

"Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama" (24 November 2008)

"Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)

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