Armenian genocide, a century on

A hundred years after the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, widening acceptance of the crime is shadowed by Ankara's continual evasion.

Vicken Cheterian
18 March 2015

Geoffrey Robertson started his talk at the Responsibility 2015 conference in New York by telling the story of his great-uncle. William Robertson was an Australian soldier in the allied forces who in 1915 was sent to fight against the Ottoman army and, hardly twenty-four hours after disembarking at Gallipoli and joining his comrades in a charge on the cliff-top defences, was felled by a sniper or machine‐gunner.

Robertson drew an important lesson from this piece of family lore: the importance of distinguishing the killing of a soldier in war, and the annihilation of the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman empire by the orders of their own state. The death of his uncle in the "Great War", as of millions of other soldiers, was tragic and painful, but there is no legal question over this outcome in that William and his comrades were "lawfully killed". By contrast, he added, the forced deportations and massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenian and other Christian civilians - including the elderly, women, and children, forced on death marches to the Syrian desert - is a crime against humanity, one that was never punished. This event needs to be remembered, Robertson insisted.

The choice of Robertson to deliver the opening speech at Responsibility 2015 - dedicated to the hundred-year anniversary of the genocide of the Armenians - is symbolically charged. The Australian-born lawyer, long based in London, has had a long career defending sensitive human-rights cases. In 2006 he was the judge heading the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, which indicted former president Charles Taylor for war crimes. Most recently, he was part of the Armenian legal team (alongside Amal Clooney) in a case concerning denial of the genocide at the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels, as well as authoring a book on the Armenian genocide. Therefore, his presence symbolically bridged between the annihilation of Christian minorities in the Ottoman empire a hundred years ago, with current concerns about mass violations of human rights and crimes against humanity.

It begins with recognition

Everyone knows that mass killings of Armenians happened, but we hardly know anything else. What happened in 1915, and how is it relevant to us today? What makes the Armenian genocide important is that it is the first "modern genocide". In pre-modern times, invading armies did massacre local populations and destroy their civilisations - whether it was the Roman armies destroying Carthage, or the invading Mongols destroying Baghdad.

What makes the Armenian case the prototype of modern genocides is that it is the government itself that turned against a part of its own population, declaring it as "undesirable" and deciding to annihilate them physically and erase their cultural traces. Under the shadow of the first world war - which the Ottomans joined by their own will on the side of the German empire - the government declared Armenians, all Armenians, as traitors and rebels. First, intellectuals were arrested and executed; second, men serving in the army were disarmed and executed; third, remaining civilians were deported to concentration camps in Der Ez‐Zor, where they were massacred en masse.

There is a growing scholarly literature showing the relationship between the genocide of the Armenians and Nazi crimes in the Holocaust, and how German nationalists took the "successes" of the Young Turks in getting rid of their Christian minorities (Armenians, but also Assyrians and Greeks) as a model for their own creation of a "homogenous" German homeland by massacring Jews, Slavs and other populations. At the same time, the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was deporting and massacring large part of its population, based on class or ethnic criteria. In later decades there were similar cases of mass murder and liquidation in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

Yet what also distinguishes the genocide of the Armenian from the Jewish Holocaust or, to an extent, these later genocides, is that in the case of the Armenians the perpetrator does not recognise its crime. For a century, Turkey first tried to erase even the memory of the Armenians; of the 2,500 churches and 500 monasteries in 1914, only forty active Armenian churches remain, and while 2.2 million Armenians lived in Turkey a century ago only 60,000 Armenians are there today. Then, when Armenians persisted in the struggle for truth and justice, Turkey responded by arguing that the deportations (or, as Turkey argues, "relocation") of populations were for military needs; that in fact, it is the Armenians who should be accused, because they were rebellious and collaborated with the enemy.

Human rights should be the concern of everyone. If we tolerate violations in one place, this could serve as justification for violations elsewhere, or for use of force out of frustration for lack of justice. The implication is: why not close our eyes to mass murder on the scale of genocide - a crime against an entire people?

Hayg Oshagan is one of the organisers of the New York conference, which took place under the auspices of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, or Tashnaks / Dashnaks). He was confident in the struggle of his own party and of the Armenians in general. "In the last few years the ARF has put its stress on reparations rather than on recognition as it was before. Recognition as an issue has been advanced and successes achieved," he says. What kind of reparations? The first step is a legal act to demand the Turkish government to return the church properties that were confiscated back in 1915, and mostly destroyed. "This could be a first step," Oshagan adds.

Denial is the last stage

The commemorations of the centenary of the genocide are taking place in a mixed emotional atmosphere. On the one hand there is a feeling of success, that even after one hundred years the struggle for justice continues. What was especially encouraging at Responsibility 2015 was the participation of a number of Turkish and Kurdish scholars who are working today on the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, recognising that there can be no rule of law and genuine democracy without addressing the fundamental sin on which the Turkish republic was built. But at the same time there is apprehension towards what is going on in the Middle East where governments and armed groups have made entire civilian populations the target of their destructive policies.

During a panel looking at artistic works inspired by the genocide - whether photography, novels or plays - one author reminded the audience that we should not give up, that the struggle for memory and for justice should continue. "Never forget that we are the majority, and they are a small minority", he insisted. By "we" he meant innocent civilians victimised by "them" - the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

On 23 April 2014, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an announcement addressed to the Armenians where he talked about conveying his "condolences". Although the message was bewildering - putting the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators on the same level - it was nevertheless the first time in ninety-nine years that a Turkish leader had acknowledged that the Armenians had suffered at all. There was hope that the Turkish leader would take additional, necessary steps to address this greatest injustice. But today, it seems that what interests Turkish leaders is not justice, but rather public relations.

"Turkey has a big diversion plan," Geoffrey Robertson says. He is referring to Turkish government plans to organise a big celebration of Ottoman victories against the allied forces in Gallipoli in 1915. Traditionally, Turkey has commemorated this battle on 18 March, but this year decided to move the big event to 24 April, when the rest of the world will be remembering the genocide of the Armenians. Denial is the last stage of genocide, but it must contend against justice with truth on its side.

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