Turkey and the Armenian genocide

Ayman Salama
Saturday 24 Mar 2018

The progress of human civilisation and the future of mankind are contingent on the ability to allow the truth to shine

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his bumptious way, continues to defy international will and to heap scorn on universally held humanitarian values and international law through his curious and, indeed, suspicious refusal to acknowledge Turkey’s responsibility for its crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Armenian people during World War I.

Although the Ottoman Empire still existed at the time, Turkey is the heir to that empire, the glorious feats of which Erdogan never ceases to boast of.

Ironically, three years ago, the Ottoman Empire’s allies in World War I, Germany and Austria, did recognise the systematic campaign that Istanbul initiated against the Armenian people in 1915 as the crime of genocide, as defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948.

Genocide is the ultimate crime against humanity and the atrocities that the Ottoman authorities unleashed against a significant ethnic component of their population fit the definition.

Turkey’s continued refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide is all the more curious given that, in 1919, the Ottoman government itself prosecuted a number of senior Ottoman officials on the charges of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity (the term, genocide, had not yet been coined) against the Armenians.

Despite the volumes of concrete evidence, the tales of survivors, the first hand eyewitness reports, official correspondence by contemporary foreign ambassadors and consuls in Istanbul, the memoirs of foreign officials and other individuals, and in spite of the many governments and parliaments that have studied such documents and resolved that they contain conclusive evidence of genocide, Turkey persists in its inexplicable obstinacy.

The right to learn the truth about such human rights abuses is a basic and inalienable human right. Access to the truth about the past is fundamental to people’s ability to form accurate perceptions of the present and to shape their common future.

Turkey’s Armenian Genocide denial not only flies in the face of humanitarian values, it is also the major obstacle to the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia, an issue that will need to be resolved in accordance with the principles of justice and humanitarianism in order for Turkey to gain EU membership.

The current Turkish government claims that no more than 300,000 Armenians died in 1915 and that the causes of their death were hunger, starvation and poor weather conditions during their deportations to the Levant.

It claims that not a single bullet had been fired against them by the Turkish military escorts who were sent along to “protect” the Armenians during their forced marches.

President Erdogan, himself, has alluded to the human rights violations against the Armenians on numerous occasions but he refuses to call it genocide, as though the other systematic crimes against humanity perpetuated against them were some kind of exception to the rule.

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide lists more than killing as a means of mass murder or genocide. Article II of the convention states:

“In the present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Clearly the intent of the foregoing provisions is to safeguard minority groups and mankind in general from the predations of despotic regimes that do not value human life or are incapable of according equal value to the lives and human dignity of their citizens without discrimination.

It is in this context that the discovery and dissemination of the truth acquires its crucial importance as the purpose goes beyond the acquisition of truth for truth’s sake to the realisation of numerous noble ends.

These include contributing to the restoration and preservation of peace; preventing persons who committed, conspired to commit, incited or were otherwise complicit in genocide from escaping justice; deterring the recurrence of such human rights violations and atrocities; helping the victims of such injustices seek redress and compensation; excluding former politicians associated with such regimes from the political arena; and the restoration of sovereignty and the rule of law.

Knowledge of the truth is a crucial component of the process of social reconciliation after periods of despotic rule, as it helps remedy the inter-communal rifts and fissures that were generated by dictatorial regimes. This definitely applies to the Turkish case.

Many countries have become models for processes of acknowledging international crimes they had committed against innocent civilians.

The processes have included public apologies and various forms of compensation. Italy’s reparations to Libya for the injustices perpetrated under Rome’s colonial rule is an excellent example.

Another major example is Germany’s recognition of the Jewish Holocaust, the Nuremberg trials to convict Nazi war criminals and German reparations paid to the victims of the injustices perpetrated by the Third Reich and their descendants.

Moreover, these processes underscore the fact that crimes of genocide and other crimes against humanity are not subject to any statute of limitations and that their perpetrators may not be granted amnesty or vindicate themselves on their grounds of the obligations of their official duties.

Sadly, the Turkish despot, Sultan Erdogan, remains blind to such models and why they are necessary.

The recent decision on the part of The Netherlands’ parliament to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915 coincided with the appeal on the part of a large number of members of the Egyptian parliament to do likewise.

To Egypt, moreover, the Armenian cause and the justice of this cause has special historic and contemporary meaning.

Egypt was one of the first countries in the world to welcome Armenian refugees fleeing the tyranny of the Ottoman regime. These refugees would go on to contribute to the Egyptian renaissance in the decades that followed World War I.

As for the present, Egyptian-Armenian relations have broadened and deepened rapidly at both the official and popular levels in many fields.

Ultimately, the truth will prevail. It will not go away simply because Erdogan refuses to see it.

The progress of human civilisation and the future of mankind are contingent on the ability to allow the truth to shine.

Unfortunately, Erdogan and many other Turks continue to opt for the Hitler approach: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” As history and the experiences of other countries have shown, they are placing their bets on a losing wager.

The writer is visiting professor of international law at Strasburg International Institute for Human Rights, France.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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