What many call the Armenian “genocide” began on April 24, 1915, with the rounding up and subsequent “disappearance” of intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Although this happened a century ago, remembrance of the destruction of over half of the Armenian people is more important than ever. The crime against humanity committed by the Ottoman Turks 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 reparation.
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 only hear of now because they are overrun by ISIL. 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, and then passed laws to seize their lands and homes and churches on the pretext that they had been “abandoned”.
The Treaty of Sevres, designed to punish the Young Turks for the colossal crime – now called “genocide” – was never implemented. Modern Turkey reportedly funds a massive “genocide denial” campaign, claiming that the death marches were merely “relocations” required by military necessity and that the massacres (the Euphrates was so packed with bodies that its course was altered) 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 Criminal Code.
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 affirming the genocide, lest it carry out threats to close its airbases to NATO and its borders to refugees.
Evidence of the government’s genocidal intent 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.
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, although you must Google his 2008 campaign speech to discover his opinion that it was genocide.
Expose and punish
As for Britain, the story is even stranger. No nation, in 1915, was more determined to expose and punish what it termed a “crime against humanity”. The evidence of the atrocities collected in Arnold Toynbee’s “Blue Book”, although published by HMG for propaganda purposes, has withstood all attempts to discredit it. However, in recent years, British ministers have called the events a “tragedy”, but have refused to use the label “genocide”. Why?
One internal memo I obtained under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act admits that: “The government 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.”
This position could not hold, especially after the International Court of Justice declared the Bosnian Serbs guilty of genocide at Srebrenica, for killing 8,000 men and deporting 25,000 women and children. Now, the UK government claims to empathise with the “suffering” of the Armenian people in the “tragedy” of 1915, and says that it is not for governments to decide a “complex legal question”. It has thus moved its “line” from genocide equivocation to genocide avoidance.
The facts, however, cannot be denied. The Dardanelles landings on April 24, 1915, were the trigger for the commencement 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.
‘The Armenian problem’
But evidence of the government’s genocidal intent 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 to have the annihilation of the Armenians recognised as an international crime. In 1948, the UN’s Genocide Convention achieved Lemkin’s objective.
Its definition of the crime includes the destruction of part of a racial or religious group, by, for example, inflicting upon it life-threatening conditions (like death marches). Applied to 1915, this produces a verdict of guilt, 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 descendant (Kim Kardashian).
The mental scars and psychological trauma for the children and grandchildren of survivors throughout the diaspora will continue until Turkey makes some acknowledgement of the crime, and offers an apology.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is founder and co-head of Doughty Street Chambers, and author of ‘An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers The Armenians?’
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.