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.