“Mutilating history and law”: Turkey’s attempt to hide the Armenian genocide

In the early hours of 24th April 1915, around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and imprisoned in the basement of Constantinople’s police headquarters, prior to deportation and, in many cases, execution. This is the day traditionally chosen by Armenians to mark the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

The historical fact of the genocide is, contrary to Turkey’s official position, not open to debate. This holocaust before The Holocaust involved mass deportation, rape and murder leading to estimated deaths of between one and one and a half million Armenians living within the Ottoman Empire. It was an outright attempt at racial extermination that, at the time, was universally recognised as such. In fact, Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘genocide’ in 1943, was inspired to do so by years researching the coordinated slaughter of the Armenians.

Exactly one hundred years later, on 24th April 2015, Turkey hosts an event commemorating another anniversary: the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign. It would be naïve to think this is just an unfortunate clash in the historical diary. On 24th April 1915, the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula lay quiet. It wasn’t until the dawn of the 25th that allied boats landed, beginning one of the bloodiest campaigns of the first world war in which 130,000 Allied Forces and Turkish soldiers died. Turkey is by no means particular about remembering Gallipoli on the 24th. Two years ago, they chose to commemorate the 98th anniversary of the campaign on March 18th – Martyrs’ day in the country – when allied forces began naval bombardment of the Dardanelles Peninsula in 1915. They are, however, particular about eclipsing remembrance of the Armenian genocide.

So, on the 24th, when Princes Charles and Harry, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, and 99 other state dignitaries shake hands (either literally or figuratively) with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, they will be collaborating in a diplomatic sleight of hand intended to overshadow an atrocity at the heart of the foundation of the Turkish state.

Erdogan has also invited the Armenian President, Serzh Sargasyan, to attend his Gallipoli commemorations. This invitation is an act of astounding cynicism: not just because, until January, Turkey officially denied that Armenian soldiers even fought at Gallipoli (simultaneous with the mass deportation and slaughter of their brethren on death marches to Mesopotamia), but because President Erdogan had already received an invitation from the Armenian government to attend events in Yerevan commemorating the genocide on the same day.

While Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin have confirmed participation in the genocide centennial events in Yerevan on 24th April, Conservative MP John Whittingdale, the Chairman of the British-Armenian all-party group, is the only member of the British government known to be attending (it is believed the British Ambassador to Armenia will also make the long trip). Whittingdale is reticent about Turkey’s motivations for organising the Gallipoli commemoration event on the 24th:

“I think it is unfortunate that [the Gallipoli commemoration] coincides with the same day of the commemoration of the genocide, which obviously has always been on that date; and one can speculate on the reasons for it.”

Labour MP Stephen Pound did speculate, in a commons debate on recognition of the genocide on 23rd March:

“To suggest that moving the commemoration of Gallipoli to the same day [as the genocide], 24th April, as the Turks have done, is anything other than a provocative act is pushing credulity.”

On 15th April, The European Union, of which Turkey has long sought membership, passed a resolution referring to the mass killing of Armenians as a “genocide” and calling on Turkey to end its policy of denial. The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately decried the resolution, accusing the EU of succumbing to “Armenian propaganda” and “mutilating history and law”.

In this context, statements such as Minister of Europe, David Lidington’s reply to Pound are something of a joke:

“A genuine step forward along that path to reconciliation would take us towards a more peaceful and secure future for everyone living in the region. I continue to hope that both Turkey and Armenia can find a way to look together towards a brighter future.”

Recognition must surely precede reconciliation. While the most important recognition must come from Turkey, by leaving matters up to those “in the region”, the UK, the U.S. et al are harming the chances of that recognition and are complicit in the act of denial. The motive of western powers for doing so is clear: maintaining good relations with Turkey, a long-time NATO ally, seen as a rare ‘friend’ in the Middle East and a bulwark against Islamic State’s expansion.

The Armenian genocide is recognised officially as a genocide by just 21 countries, including France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, Greece and Canada. Although recognised by 43 U.S. states, the genocide remains officially unrecognised by the U.S., despite Obama’s unequivocal promise in 2008 to do so. The Obama administration has made clear that it will not refer to the killings as a genocide on the 100th anniversary for fear of pissing off key partner and Nato ally Turkey. The genocide also remains unrecognised, true to form, by the State of Israel.

What of Britain’s record? The genocide was declared a “crime against humanity” by Britain, France and Russia in 1915. Britain also helped to collate evidence of the atrocities in the famous ‘blue book’ by Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee in 1916. In the intervening century, the UK government has lost its sense of certainty. The genocide has been more or less officially downgraded to an “appalling tragedy condemned by the British Government of the day” – a phrase used to soothe the Armenian Assembly of America during Britain’s attempts to exclude Armenians from the first UK Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January 2001.

The language used by the UK government in relation to the Armenian genocide is repugnant; the declaration that available evidence is not “sufficiently unequivocal” – whatever that means – smacks of denialism. This is the language of official forgetting. A freedom of information request unearthed the following gem of a policy memorandum from the Foreign Office in 1999 relating to Her Majesty’s Government’s silence on the issue:

“HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension. But given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey…the current line is the only feasible option.”

Despite the age of these examples, the British government’s stance remains, against all evidence, unchanged. David Liddington, on 23rd March, stated:

“[Stephen Pound] asked me a direct question about the Government’s policy on the recognition of the events in Armenia as a genocide. I have to say to him that the Government’s policy, indeed the policy of successive Governments, has not changed since 1988 when this matter was reviewed.”

In the UK and much of the western world, the Armenian genocide remains shockingly outside of the public consciousness. To his credit, Pope Francis spoke out on 12th April, in similar terms to Pope John Paul II, but for the first time on such a large stage, explicitly referring to the events as “the first genocide of the 20th century” (not, in fact, correct: consensus is that this was the Herero and Namaqua Genocide in German South-West Africa carried out between 1904-1907). Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. Kim Kardashian, who is of Armenian descent, and Kanye West have also done much to raise the cause’s profile in a recent visit to the country.

On the 24th April, the centenary of the Armenian genocide’s beginning, commemorative events and a frenzy of media ire the world over will advance public recognition still further. But it remains evident that there must be continued pressure for state recognition, in line with the inarguable weight of scholarly consensus. With this, in the words of Stephen Pound, “hopefully, the wave of global condemnation would wash up even across the battlements in Ankara and the Turkish Government would admit that their predecessors, the Ottoman Government back in 1915, did commit appalling crimes.”

Asked what kind of pressure the UK government was planning to put on Turkey in the future, John Whittingdale spoke of encouraging “normalisation” of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia (talks between the two countries have been effectively stalled since 2010) and added, probably correctly, that this would “actually will be of real benefit to Armenia”.

Something that no one in the UK government would suggest is a boycott of the Turkish-organised Gallipoli commemorations, clearly intended to overshadow the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Far from forgetting those who sacrificed their lives at Gallipoli, such a boycott on the 24th April would be an act truly in the spirit of remembrance.

—Jeremy Gordon

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