Last week, Friday 24th April, marked the centenary anniversary of what is considered the start of the Armenian genocide of 1915. What distinguishes genocide from a mass atrocity or killing? According to Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the term in 1943, genocide is the “destruction of a nation or ethnic group”. Key here is destruction, as opposed to extermination. His definition, widely recognized and endorsed in much UN and post-Nuremburg legislation, makes a differentiation in order to encompass the wide means by which an ethnic group can be compromised.
One hundred years on, it is still highly contentious as to whether the loss of life of the Armenian peoples sufficiently constitutes categorization as ‘genocide’. Pope Francis this week commemorated its legitimacy as such, but the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was keen to contradict the statement, with the Turkish PM calling the comments both ‘one-sided’ and ‘inappropriate’. It remains a highly politicised and contentious topic within Turkey, whose government has successfully pressured other nations to resist acknowledging the atrocity as genocide, including the United States.
The events in Armenia are able to resist the label largely because of ambiguity around the Ottoman intention of genocide, a key requirement in UN recognition and often the hardest aspect to prove. On 24th April 1915, up to three hundred prominent Armenian political intellectuals were imprisoned in Constantinople, much of the Armenian Revolutionary Foundation membership. Christians have a history of persecution within the Ottoman Empire, and the events of WW1 and regional agitations for independence caused intolerance to escalate and seemed to help legitimise the harsh measures implemented against them.
While discovered mass graves are undeniable, Turkey continues to maintain that only half a million of the empire’s former two million population of ethnic Armenians died. They say these were rebels, and unfortunate casualties of the war, and were not deliberately annihilated because of their ethnicity, while critics maintain that this fails to account for upwards of one million others. Men, considered the ethnic carriers of identity, were killed very quickly, and women and children were forced into exhausting marches into near-unsurvivable conditions in the Syrian desert. The brutality women faced on deportation convoys was some of the most disturbing of all – forced into sex slavery, victim to mass rape and often sold off or traded by Ottoman officials into Muslim households, forced into marriage and childbearing. Vulnerable without male protection, they were coerced into religious conversion. Despite the ‘Mudros Armistice of October 1918’ requiring the release of forcibly married women, many remained in silence, stigmatised by their ordeals so much that they abandoned their former identities.
Amal Clooney earlier this year brought attention to the categorisation again, representing Armenia in the ECHR against a specific Turkish politician’s genocide denial. Groups of expatriated Armenians and descendants continue to campaign worldwide for greater recognition of their ancestors’ tragedy. And on the 100th anniversary, Angela Merkel planned to commemorate the event with a German coalition vote on recognition, as leaders gathered in Yerevan to commemorate the start of the massacre. It is hoped this move will help Turkish leaders come to terms with their genocidal history, like Germany itself has been able to acknowledge and overcome.
A century down the line, people may question the necessity of the debate on classification. Critics would argue that facing up to unsavoury pasts is integral to prevent such atrocities reoccurring. Yet international leaders such as Barack Obama will still desperately skirt around using the ‘g’ word for fear of antagonizing the Turkish, increasingly important allies, because of Turkey’s borders, in the fight to combat the growth of the Islamic State.
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Flickr