Why should we remember the Armenian genocide? 105 years on

, by Darlene Schembri

Why should we remember the Armenian genocide? 105 years on
Monastery Of Haghartsin, Armenia. Photo credit: 680451 (pixabay.com)

On this day, one hundred and five years ago, Armenian leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by Ottoman authorities and murdered. This day therefore marks the commencement of the Ottoman plans to systematically kill and annihilate the Armenian minority. By the end, around one and a half million Armenians had been displaced, tortured, or killed. Today, the victims of the genocide are commemorated on the 24th of April, with ceremonies held in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, and in other cities around the world.

What is genocide?

When the Armenian massacres were unfolding, the term ‘genocide’ had not yet been coined. In fact, it was later created by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer in 1944, who worked tirelessly to establish an international law concerning genocide. He achieved this in 1948, when the United Nations General Assembly ratified The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Article II of the Convention defines genocide as follows:

“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Recognition by the European Union

The European Union’s foundations are rooted in liberal values and principles. The EU is perceived as the bloc which represents democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, liberty, peace, and reconciliation.

The EU presents itself as a civilian power which can facilitate a peaceful resolution of disputes. When it comes to the issue of the recognition of the Armenian genocide, the EU has always attracted attention on the international stage. The European Parliament (EP) has supported the Armenian plea for recognition, having passed various resolutions throughout the years which recognise the mass killings as genocide. The first ever resolution that recognised the 1915 events as genocide was passed in 1987. It states that:

"[The European Parliament] believes that the tragic events in 1915-1917 involving the Armenians living in the territory of the Ottoman Empire constitute genocide within the meaning of the convention on the prevention and the punishment of the crime of genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948.”

Further recognition by the EP came in the 21st century, with resolutions passed in 2000, 2002, 2005 and most recently in 2015 to address the mass killings as genocide. In 2015, on the centenary of the start of the genocide, Pope Francis’ reference to the genocide as ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’ sparked international attention, and the EP passed a resolution addressing the Armenian genocide.

Throughout the years, the EP has pushed Turkey to recognise the killings as genocide, and encouraged Turks and Armenians to initiate diplomatic relations. However, these are still not established to this day.

EU-Turkey Relations and Turkey’s accession to the EU

Despite the continual push from the European Parliament, neither the European Commission nor the European Council addressed the recognition of the Armenian genocide. Furthermore, when Turkey submitted its application for EU membership in 1987, neither the Commission nor the Council pressured Turkey on the genocide issue in the membership negotiations. They stated that recognition is not a requirement for Turkey, since it is not part of the Copenhagen criteria—a set of rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union.

This shows clearly that the Commission and Council prioritised the relations of Turkey rather than looking at the crime against humanity committed by the Ottomans on the Armenian people. It goes against the EU’s very own human rights principles. When a resolution was presented in Parliament for Turkey’s membership in 2006, Parliament voted against making genocide recognition as a precondition for Turkey’s accession into the EU, going against its own position from the previous resolutions. This was due to the pressures from other EU institutions. Ultimately, this truly shows how weak the European Parliament is compared to the other EU institutions.

International and US Recognition

Various European states, including Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Greece, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, have recognized the genocide through their respective national parliaments. Internationally, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Lebanon and others have also recognized the killings as genocide. To this day, a total of 32 states recognize the Armenian atrocities as genocide.

At the end of 2019, the US Congress recognized the 1915 events as genocide for the first time in history. The US had avoided labelling these events with the infamous ‘g-word’ for over a century. Throughout the years, the House of Representatives have presented resolutions to recognize this genocide multiple times, but Senate never addressed this due to pressure from Turkey and US officials in order to protect the relationship with the important geo-strategic ally. This finally changed a few months ago, after the resolution was passed unanimously by the Republican-led Senate, defying Trump’s wishes. This was a monumental achievement for the fairly large Armenian diaspora in the US, who have lobbied for this for years.

With regards to Presidential recognition, all presidents, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, have avoided using the term ‘genocide’ when referring to the 1915 killings, due to the fear of repercussions from Turkey and the worsening of relations with this important geo-strategic ally. Barack Obama had promised to recognise the genocide if elected President, yet every year during his two terms in office on the commemoration of the genocide, he kept back from using this term.

Turkish response to recognition

The recognition of the genocide from third party states provoked a negative reaction from the Turkish government. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, along with other Turkish officials, condemned these recognitions, and there have been political, economic and military consequences to official recognition from states. Turkish ambassadors have even been recalled, which has led to stalled diplomatic relations.

After France’s recognition and criminalisation of denial, Turkey cancelled projects with French partners relating to military and economic cooperation. Turkey still denies that these killings constitute genocide, and claim that the Armenian deaths are collectively part of the victims of World War I, and that many Turks suffered from similar deaths. To this day, Turkey is still on an international campaign to deny these events as genocide.

Present and future recognition of genocide

It is important to recognise and commemorate the Armenian genocide, as this brings awareness to crimes against humanity and protection of human rights and minorities.

The recognition and memorial of these inhumane acts puts light on genocidal acts which are still occurring today, such as Turkey’s campaign against the Kurdish minority.

Any prospective negotiations with Turkey with regard to its membership of the European Union should therefore, on principle, always keep the (lack of) recognition of Armenian genocide in mind.

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