Thomas de Waal’s Futile Attempt at Trivializing the Armenian Genocide

Thomas de Waal


“A half-truth is a whole lie” – Yiddish proverb

Thomas de Waal is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has penned an article, “The G-Word – The Armenian Massacre and the Politics of Genocide,” that will appear in the upcoming January-February 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs. This article is the precursor of his forthcoming book, “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.” Given the timing of the publication of this article and the book, it is obvious that Mr. de Waal opens the first salvo of Turkish denialism against the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

Mr. de Waal is an analyst who has repeatedly focused on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations over the issue of the independent Republic of Nagorno Karabakh and on Armenian-Turkish relations over the issue of the Armenian Genocide. But he has a peculiar way of showing integrity in his approach to these two fundamental issues.

It is peculiar because, as an “expert” in conflict resolution, Mr. de Waal utilizes the old gimmick of double standard. On the issue of Nagorno Karabakh, he is an ardent proponent of changing the status quo – in favor of Azerbaijan and against Armenia. On the issue of the Armenian Genocide, he is an avid defender of maintaining the status quo – in favor of Turkey and against Armenia. As it is obvious, for Mr. de Waal the concept of justice is a variable in his approach to conflict resolution, depending on the identity of the party to the conflict.

Given his biased reputation on issues involving Armenia and Armenians, Mr. de Waal’s article did not strike any intellectual surprises on the side of justice and truth in conflict resolutions. Through this article, his entire endeavor amounts to a futile attempt at trivializing the Armenian Genocide in order to reach his proposed conclusion that it is time for Armenians to “bury their grandparents and receive an acknowledgment from the Turkish state of the terrible fate they suffered.”

We should look beyond this insulting “advice” and, instead, focus on the facts Mr. de Waal advances in support of his conclusion. We must bear in mind that his attempt is to transform the Armenian Genocide into a non-existing issue.

First, he claims that Armenians “discovered” Genocide in 1960s. According to Mr. De Waal, for decades the “event of the Great Catastrophe” were “more a matter of private grief than public record;” that they spent more effort “fighting the Soviet Union rather than Turkey;” and that only in the 1960s did they “seriously revive” the massacres “as a public political issue” by being inspired from the “Holocaust consciousness.”

In making these blatant statements Mr. de Waal conveniently overlooks the facts that as of the beginning of 1920s Armenians expressed their collective consciousness of the Catastrophe and voiced their claims for reparations. It is true that they did not refer to it as Genocide, as they could not, because that term came into existence in 1944, when Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined it based on the Ottoman massacres of Armenians. Until that time, Armenians presented themselves to the world and to Turkey as claimants of their national heritage destroyed by Ottoman Turkey and of their national homeland occupied by Turkey. As the world turned a blind eye on Armenian demands for justice, in the 1920s they organized their own “Nuremberg trials” by punishing the chief organizers and perpetrators of the Armenian massacres – namely, Talaat pasha, Enver pasha, Jemal Azmi, Behaeddin Shakir, Jivanshi Bey, and so on… At the same time, Armenians established the Delegation of the Republic of Armenia to officially pursue their claims for territorial and economic reparations from Turkey.

Contrary to Mr. de Waal’s claims, Armenians actively pursued their claims for justice since the 1920s; at the same time they remembered their grandparents and they will do so forever.

Second, Mr. de Waal displays his irritation over the use of the word “Genocide” in reference to the Armenian massacres. He credits Raphael Lemkin for inventing that terminology and lobbying the United Nations for the adoption of the 1948 Genocide Convention. However, he attempts to discredit Lemkin as a “problematic personality;” he criticizes the ambiguity of the Genocide Convention; and he deplores the exploitation of the word Genocide. With that he arrives at the notion that “The Armenian Diaspora saw the word as a perfect fit to describe what happened” to them, thereby helping “activate a new political movement…”

Mr. de Waal ignores the fact that even back in 1944, when Raphael Lemkin coined the term Genocide he invoked the Armenian case as a definitive example of Genocide in the 20th century. Lemkin described the crime of Genocide as the “systematic destruction of a whole national, racial or religious groups. The sort of thing that Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians.”

Mr. de Waal also ignores the records that the United Nations enacted on December 11, 1946, its first resolution on Genocide, known as UN General Assembly Resolution 95(1). Thereafter, on December 9, 1948, it adopted the UN Genocide Convention. Both the resolution and the convention recognized the Armenian Genocide as the type of crime the United Nations intended to prevent by codifying the existing customary international rules and standards. Again, in 1948, the UN War Crimes Commission invoked the Armenian Genocide as being “precisely . . . one of the types of acts which the modern term ‘crimes against humanity’ is intended to cover as a precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals.” Thereafter, in 1985, the UN Commission on Human Rights report, entitled ‘Study of the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,’ invoked the Armenian massacres as an example of genocide. In the report, the UN commission stated, “The Nazi aberration has unfortunately not been the only case of genocide in the twentieth century. Among other examples, which can be cited as qualifying, are . . . the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in 1915-1916.”

As the official records stand, the Armenians did not see the word Genocide “as a perfect fit,” it was the United Nations who, on behalf of the world governments, established and declared through its resolutions and the Genocide Convention that genocidal acts of Ottoman Turkey against Armenians and of Nazi Germany against Jews are Genocide.

Third, according to Mr. de Waal, even if the word Genocide is granted to the Armenian massacres, the U.N. Genocide Convention does not have retroactive applicability. He claims, without identifying them that “Most international legal opinions are clear that the UN Genocide Convention carries no retroactive force and therefore could not be invoked to bring claims on dispossessed property.”

Again, Mr. de Waal makes blanket statements without any substantiation in fact or in law. And once again, he conveniently ignores the record, the law and the facts. The provisions of the Genocide Convention carry ex post facto applicability. They are indeed enforceable retroactively based on the following points:

1. The dual vocation of the Genocide Convention in preventing and punishing the perpetrator of the crime of Genocide provides the necessary basis for its retroactivity;

2. The retribution mandated by the Genocide Convention makes it retroactive, because, besides being condemned and punished for the crime of Genocide, the perpetrator of the crime is also not to be allowed to keep the fruits of the crime;

3. The Genocide Convention is declaratory of a pre-existing internationally recognized wrongful act, thereby giving rise to both state responsibility and individual penal liability. As such, the convention is not creating a new criminal law.

4. To provide solid legal grounds to the foregoing points, on November 26, 1968 the UN adopted the Convention on the Non-Applicability of the Statutory Limitation on War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. This convention eliminated any time bar on the crime of genocide. Thus, the provisions of the Genocide Convention are applicable to any crime of genocide, irrespective of the time of its commission.

Mr. de Waal makes many other unsubstantiated statements in his attempt at trivializing the Armenian Genocide. He twists facts, to serve his purpose, as if to confirm Mark Twain’s observation to “get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

In the final analysis, Mr. de Waal’s entire attempt is based on uttering half-truths. And as the wise Yiddish proverb asserts, “A half-truth is a whole lie.”

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