War of words rages as Ar­me­ni­ans battle for geno­cide recog­ni­tion


Mass killings? Mu­tual blood­let­ting? Geno­cide? The hun­dreds of thou­sands of dead have been si­lent for a cen­tury, but gen­er­a­tions on, Ar­me­ni­ans are still bat­tling to get the World War I slay­ing of their an­ces­tors rec­og­nized as a geno­cide.

As Ar­me­ni­ans around the world gear up to mark 100 years since the start of the slaugh­ter on April 24, the strug­gle to get the world — and above all Turkey — to use the term “geno­cide” re­mains deeply di­vi­sive.

To Ar­me­ni­ans the word rep­re­sents de­fin­i­tive proof of their an­ces­tors’ hor­rific suf­fer­ing at the hands of the Ot­toman Em­pire dur­ing World War I, but for Ankara the vi­o­lence was per­pe­trated by all sides and de­scrib­ing the events as “geno­cide” is a red line it can­not cross.

Trapped some­where in the mid­dle is an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, no­tably the United States, un­der pres­sure from Ar­me­nia’s large di­as­pora but wor­ried about up­set­ting a ris­ing Turkey.

“For Ar­me­ni­ans the word ‘ geno­cide’ en­cap­su­lates what hap­pened to their fore­fa­thers in 1915 and also el­e­vates the Ar­me­nian ex­pe­ri­ence to the level of that of the Holo­caust,” said Thomas De Waal, an ex­pert on the re­gion at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace in Wash­ing­ton.

“Pre­cisely for the same rea­son, of­fi­cial Turkey has al­ways re­jected the term, on the grounds that it equates the be­hav­ior of their grand­par­ents with the Nazis and also out of para­noia that the ap­pli­ca­tion of the word could lead to legal claims against Turkey.”

Ar­me­ni­ans say up to 1.5 mil­lion of their kin were sys­tem­at­i­cally killed be­tween 1915 and 1917 by Ot­toman au­thor­i­ties as their em­pire — the pre­cur­sor to mod­ern Turkey — crum­bled.

Turkey re­jects the claims, ar­gu­ing that 300,000 to 500,000 Ar­me­ni­ans and as many Turks died in civil strife when Ar­me­ni­ans rose up against their Ot­toman rulers and sided with in­vad­ing Rus­sian troops.

Rise of a Move­ment

For some 30 years af­ter the killings no one thought of call­ing the mas­sacres of Ar­me­ni­ans a geno­cide — be­cause the term it­self did not ex­ist.

Up un­til then, Ar­me­ni­ans re­ferred to the tragedy sim­ply as the “Great Catas­tro­phe” — or Medz Yegh­ern in Ar­me­nian.

Coined only in 1944 by Pol­ishJewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, the word “geno­cide” be­came cod­i­fied in law in the 1948 United Na­tions Geno­cide Con­ven­tion, which de­fined it as “acts com­mit­ted with in­tent to de­stroy, in whole or part, a na­tional, eth­ni­cal, racial or re­li­gious group.”

The start of the clamor for recog­ni­tion came later in 1965 as Ar­me­ni­ans around the world marked the 50th an­niver­sary of the killings.

In Ar­me­nia it­self — then a repub­lic of the Soviet Union — dis­cussing any of­fi­cial ac­cep­tance of the geno­cide was a taboo but an un­prece­dented protest that saw some 100,000 take to the streets forced the Krem­lin to start reeval­u­at­ing its po­si­tion.

“It was like a ge­nie was let out of the bot­tle,” Rolan Manucharyan, a physics pro­fes­sor who took part in the 1965 demon­stra­tion in down­town Yere­van, told AFP.

The 1980s then saw a surge in the in­ter­na­tional move­ment for recog­ni­tion, mainly fu­eled by the Ar­me­nian com­mu­nity in the U.S., with out­bursts of vi­o­lence as rad­i­cal groups killed Turk­ish of­fi­cials.

So far, Ar­me­nia says 22 coun­tries — promi­nently France, with its large Ar­me­nian com­mu­nity — have rec­og­nized the geno­cide.

Last Sun­day Pope Fran­cis be­came the lat­est in­ter­na­tional fig­ure to wade into the con­tro­versy as he used the term “geno­cide” to de­scribe the killings, spark­ing a fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion from Turkey.

For Amer­i­can pres­i­dents the is­sue has al­ways been a thorny one.

Ron­ald Rea­gan used the term in the early 1980s but since then the com­man­ders-in-chief in Wash­ing­ton have shied away.

Barack Obama — who pledged be­fore he won the pres­i­dency to rec­og­nize the geno­cide — has sidestepped the con­tentious term by us­ing the Ar­me­nian term Medz Yegh­ern.

Re­turn of Land?

The fall­out from the mas­sacres still shapes the re­gion with of­fi­cial ties be­tween Turkey and Ar­me­nia frozen.

Part of the fear in Ankara over the push for geno­cide recog­ni­tion is that it could see Ar­me­ni­ans lay claim to land in eastern Turkey.

“The term ‘geno­cide’ is not just an aca­demic con­cept but also a legal one. It means that a crime was com­mit­ted and sug­gests that there should be pun­ish­ment and com­pen­sa­tion,” said Ruben Safrastyan, the direc­tor of Yere­van’s In­sti­tute of Ori­en­tal Stud­ies.

At present Ar­me­nia has no of­fi­cial ter­ri­to­rial claims against Turkey but in 2013 pros­e­cu­tor gen­eral Agh­van Hovsepyan sparked fury in Ankara by say­ing Ar­me­ni­ans should have their “lost ter­ri­to­ries” re­turned.

But de­spite the dreams of some Ar­me­ni­ans to re­claim their land, an­a­lysts said few out­side the com­mu­nity se­ri­ously think there will be any move to re­take the land.

“It would be very dif­fi­cult for any Ar­me­nian po­lit­i­cal leader to say that Ar­me­nia has no ter­ri­to­rial claims to Turkey,” Svante Cor­nell from the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­tral Asia-Cau­ca­sus In­sti­tute told AFP.

“But West­ern politi­cians don’t take se­ri­ously” the pos­si­bil­ity of a land dis­pute.

As the 100th an­niver­sary of the killings ap­proaches, the strug­gle for of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion is as in­tense as ever.

And the bur­den of what hap­pened — and get­ting recog­ni­tion for it — still weighs heav­ily over Ar­me­nia and Ar­me­ni­ans around the world.

“The pain forces us to con­stantly look back into the past,” said Ar­me­nian au­thor Ruben Hovsepyan, whose mother fled the killings as a child.

“It does not al­low us to fully build our fu­ture as we use up so much na­tional en­ergy and po­ten­tial on forc­ing Turkey to rec­og­nize the geno­cide.”

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