Appalling silence over Turkey’s 1915 genocide against Armenians

Appalling silence over Turkey’s 1915 genocide against Armenians –

By Geoffrey Robertson –

The Australian –


JUST before the invasion of Pol­and, Adolf Hitler urged his generals to show no mercy towards its people — there would be no retribution because “after all, who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

As the centenary of the Armenian genocide approaches — it began on April 24, 1915, the night before the Gallipoli landing, with the rounding up and subsequent “disappearance” of intellectuals and community leaders — remembrance of the destruction of more than half of the Armenian people is more important than ever. Yet, as Hitler recognised in 1939, the crime the Ottoman Turks committed against humanity by killing the major part of this ancient Christian race has never been requited or, in the case of Turkey, been the subject of apology or reparations.

The Young Turks who ran the Ottoman government did not use gas ovens but they did massacre the men and sent the women, children and elders on death marches through the desert to ­places we hear of now only because they are overrun by Islamic State. They died en route in their hundreds of thousands from starvation or attack, and many survivors died of typhus in concentration camps at the end of the line. The government ordered these forced deportations in 1915, then passed laws to seize the Armenians’ lands, homes and churches on the pretext that they had been abandoned.

The destruction of more than a million Armenians was declared a “crime against humanity” by Britain, France and Russia in 1915, and these allies formally promised punishment for what a US inquiry at the end of the war described as “a colossal crime — the wholesale attempt on a race”. But the Treaty of Sevres, designed at the end of World War I to punish the Young Turks for the colossal crime — now called genocide — was never implemented.

Modern Turkey funds a massive genocide denial campaign, claiming that the death marches were merely relocations required by military necessity and that the undeniable massacres (the Euphrates was so packed with bodies that it altered its course) were the work of a few “unruly” officials. In Turkey today, you can go to jail — and some do — for affirming that there was a genocide in 1915: this counts as the crime of “insulting Turkishness” under section 301 of its penal code.

Ironically, in some European countries, it counts as a crime to deny the Armenian genocide. The parliaments of many democracies — France, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Russia, Greece and Canada, for example — recognise it explicitly, as do 43 states of the US. The problem is that Turkey, “neuralgic” on the subject (the word used privately by the British Foreign Office to describe its attitude), has threatened reprisals and is too important geopolitically at present to provoke by stating the truth, lest it carries out threats to close it air bases to NATO and its borders to refugees.

Thus Barack Obama, who roundly condemned the Armenian genocide in 2008 and promised to do so when elected President, dares not utter the G-word. Instead, he calls it Meds Yeghern (Armenian for “the great crime”) and asserts that his opinion has not changed.

The same double standard has been adopted by the Australian government. Tony Abbott, when opposition leader, did not hesitate to condemn the Armenian genocide. But when the NSW parliament formally recognised it, Turkey threatened to ban MPs from Gallipoli for next year’s Anzac centenary.

That doubtless explains Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s bizarre statement in June that the events of 1915 were “a tragedy” but “we do not recognise the events as genocide”. She added: “The approach of the Australian government has been not to become involved in this sensitive debate.” A sure-fire way of becoming involved in the debate is to refuse to recognise the genocide, and she was duly hailed in Turkey as a genocide denier. “Australian Foreign Minister: Armenians not victims of genocide” screamed the newspaper headlines in Istanbul.

Telling the truth about this genocide has, for the Australian government, never been more inconvenient. Although many of its members will be at the dawn service at Gallipoli on April 25 next year, nobody has yet been appointed to represent Australia at the international commemoration in Armenia’s capital Yerevan on the day before.

This is shameful because the Dardanelles landings were the trigger for the start of the genocide, and (together with Russian military activity on Turkey’s eastern front) were used as an excuse for the destruction of the Armenians, on the pretext that they might support the allied invasion.

Even today, Turkey defends the death marches on grounds of “military necessity”, as if the destruction of civilians far from the front, and the ethnic cleansing of women, old men and children, could ever be necessary to gain a military advantage.

The evidence of the government’s genocidal intent, in any case, is overwhelming, coming as it does from appalled German and Italian diplomats and neutral Americans, to whom the Young Turk leaders admitted that they were going to eliminate “the Armenian problem” by eliminating the Armenians.

There can never be justification for genocide. This was understood by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the word and worked tirelessly between the wars to have the annihilation of the Armenians recognised as an international crime. The Holocaust soon provided another example of the need for a convention to bind the world to act against governments that seek to destroy racial or religious minorities.

It is sometimes forgotten that Australia was first to take up Lemkin’s cause, through the foresight of Doc Evatt, who bonded with Lemkin and introduced the Genocide Convention in 1948 during his presidency of the UN General Assembly. Its definition of the crime, applied to the undisputed facts of 1915, produces a verdict of guilt that is beyond reasonable doubt.

It was, of course, a century ago: does it still matter? A century is just within living memory: this year a 103-year-old woman, once a small child carried by her mother across burning sands, took tea with Obama and the world’s most famous Armenian (Kim Kardashian). The mental scars and trauma for the children and grandchildren of survivors throughout the diaspora will continue until Turkey makes some acknowledgment of the crime and offers an apology.

International law may provide some assistance: there are assets expropriated in 1915 that can still be traced, and many ruined churches that can be restored and returned. Armenians want restoration of their historic lands in eastern ­Turkey, which is asking too much ­(although I have suggested that the majestic Mount Ararat, overlooking Yerevan, could be handed over by Turkey as an act of ­reconciliation).

But what they want most of all is what they are plainly entitled to have: an acknowledgment from Turkey, and for that matter from the Australian government, that what happened to their people in 1915 was not a tragedy but a crime.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is author of An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians?, published this month by Random House.

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