Nearly a century after the Armenian genocide, Turkey is still at loggerheads with anyone who calls a spade a spade. If the country wants to play a significant role in regional politics, it must change its tune.
The Armenian genocide refers to the systematic decimation of a large part of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It was carried out by means of wholesale massacres and deportations consisting of forced marches under conditions designed to hasten the death of the deportees. The total number of Armenian deaths is generally held to have been between 1 million and 1.5 million. Other ethnic groups were similarly attacked by the Ottoman Empire during this period, including Assyrians and Greeks, and some scholars consider those events to be part of the same policy of extermination.
International lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC and British historian Niall Ferguson are just two authorities among many who recognize the Armenian genocide. On 24 April 1998 the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly passed a Resolution signed by 50 of its members commemorating “the anniversary of what has been called the first genocide of the 20th century” and saluting “the memory of the Armenian victims of this crime against humanity.” On 10 December 2009 Geoffrey Robertson QC published an article in The New Statesman referring to a legal opinion he had drawn up detailing how in Britain New Labour has played politics by denying the massacre of the Armenians.
In 1998 the French National Assembly formally recognized the slaughter as genocide, despite the fact that the motion arose from a parliamentary initiative and did not have the formal backing of the government. However, at the end of December 2011 the Assembly voted on a new bill to punish those who deny the Armenian genocide with a year in prison and a substantial fine. Turkey immediately threatened “grave consequences” for Franco-Turkish relations if the bill were approved. But by a show of hands a large majority backed the bill and it will go before the Senate this year. Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador.
The proposed bill has been criticized as an attack on freedom of expression, but that is misleading. Freedom of expression is essential to individual dignity, participation, accountability and democracy. It is not to be used as a smokescreen for deception and lies. Importantly, freedom of expression is no longer above constraint: Holocaust denial and hate speech being two noteworthy examples.
Turkey’s sensitivity to the term “genocide” is long-standing. In a statement reacting to the French move, President Abdullah Gül said the proposed legislation denied Turkey the freedom to reject “unfair and groundless accusations” – which, of course, is not true. What he meant was that Turkey would be obliged to appear in a court of law to prove how they were unfair and groundless.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, told journalists that the French National Assembly should instead look into France’s actions in Africa, especially Algeria and Rwanda. In a later statement, he accused President Nicolas Sarkozy of using the bill to fan hatred of Muslims and Turks for electoral gain. “In Algeria from 1945, an estimated 15% of the population was massacred by the French,” he said. “This is a genocide. The Algerians were burned en masse in ovens. They were martyred mercilessly.” Of course the French National Assembly should investigate such allegations, but whatever it discovered would not negate the events of 1915.
Adolf Hitler, briefing his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland, revealed his plans for the Polish nation – cited in Norman Davies’ Europe: A History (1996):
“I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the lebensraum that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Well, we do. Many of the last century’s crimes against humanity are being exposed and punished in international and national courts of law. Many countries in Latin America are bringing to trial those responsible for horrendous acts of violence under military dictatorships. Similar acts in Cambodia, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere are under intense scrutiny.
With the “Arab Spring”, Turkey is positioning itself to become a political and economic powerbroker in Europe and the Near East. If Turkey is serious, now is the time for it to acknowledge the errors of its past and to make tangible moves towards reconciliation. Almost a century after the genocide, there is a time to heal.