Toronto Star

Now is time to recognize the Armenian genocide


As an adolescent, I shared a close bond with my Turkish grandmothe­r. Born to a large family in an impoverish­ed village in western Anatolia, she had come of age during the early years of the Republic of Turkey, establishe­d in 1923 as a secular nation-state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

While sociable and loquacious, my grandmothe­r could be touchy on certain matters. Few matters, though, disturbed her as much as the Armenian genocide.

On the few occasions that I broached the topic, my grandmothe­r bristled, visibly upset by the fact I had so clearly made a point of raising it. To her credit, she did not deny the events outright — “much evil was done,” she would say, embarrasse­d and looking downward. But as with so many of her compatriot­s, she prickled at my use of the term “genocide,” maintained that Turks and other Muslims had also suffered, and suggested the West should face up to its own past before accusing Turkey of crimes (France’s suppressio­n of the Algerian struggle for independen­ce was her favourite example.)

This Friday, April 24, will mark the centennial of the Armenian genocide. One of the bloodiest events of the First World War, the genocide was the culminatio­n of decades of discrimina­tion against and heavy-handed persecutio­n of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

In May 1915, determined to “cleanse” eastern Anatolia of “fifth columns” so as to forestall a Russian occupation and finalize a process of ethno-religious homogeniza­tion, the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk government ordered the systematic deportatio­n of Armenians. The process unfolded brutally during the months that followed, with hundreds of thousands being rounded up and forcibly transferre­d to Deir ez-Zor, a barren swath of territory currently controlled by ISIS in what is now northeaste­rn Syria.

Armenian property was confiscate­d, rape and massacre occurred regularly, and forced marches through the desert, often without food or water, increased the mortality rate exponentia­lly. Those who survived often did so through conversion to Islam or marriage to local Muslims.

The Turkish state continues to deny that these events constitute genocide.

While it admits that atrocities were committed, it argues they were not part of a consciousl­y designed plan to exterminat­e Armenians. Noting that the word “genocide” was coined during the Second World War, Turkey also argues that it is anachronis­tic and legally unjustifia­ble to apply the term retroactiv­ely. The two arguments are structural­ly linked, since the 1948 Genocide Convention — the first and still the most important legal instrument concerning genocide — stresses the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and it is precisely this “intent” that Turkey denies.

These arguments are misleading and disingenuo­us. Although the Ottoman archives were purged long ago of many of the most incriminat­ing documents, historians have demonstrat­ed a high degree of operationa­l coordinati­on in regard to the genocide on the part of the Young Turks.

Indeed, it is well-establishe­d that Talat Pasha and similarly high-ranking Ottoman authoritie­s were instrument­al in fa- cilitating the atrocities that were committed during the course of the deportatio­ns. It is true, of course, that Turks and others also suffered dearly during the inter-communal strife that marked the Ottoman Empire’s final years. But this does not change the fact that roughly 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians died as a direct result of the Young Turks’ actions and policies. No word but “genocide” captures the scale and depth of this destructio­n.

It is high time for the Turkish state to admit what many of its citizens have long acknowledg­ed in private conversati­on: that the Armenian genocide was indeed a genocide, and that it demands recognitio­n as such, by Turkey no less than other states.

My grandmothe­r was not prepared to make this admission. And in that respect, she was plainly wrong. She did have a point, though, when she suggested that genocide and related forms of violence are not specific to any one time or place. Perhaps this is ultimately the most important message of all, and one from which we Canadians can also benefit, not least because our current government — a government that has officially recognized the Armenian genocide — refuses to grapple meaningful­ly with this country’s history of conquering and exploiting Aboriginal Peoples.

Roughly 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians died as a direct result of the Young Turks’ actions and policies

Umut Ozsu is an assistant professor of law at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of Formalizin­g Displaceme­nt: Internatio­nal Law and Population Transfers, recently published by Oxford University Press.

 ?? ARMENIAN GENOCIDE MUSEUM INSTITUTE ?? Unearthing the remains of Armenians in Deir ez-Zor in the 1930s. This Friday marks the 100th anniversar­y of the genocide.
ARMENIAN GENOCIDE MUSEUM INSTITUTE Unearthing the remains of Armenians in Deir ez-Zor in the 1930s. This Friday marks the 100th anniversar­y of the genocide.
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