Updated: May 1, 2021 5:39:27 pm
On April 24, Joe Biden became the first US President to declare that the 1915 systemic massacre of Armenians constituted an act of genocide. Although President Ronald Reagan used the term in passing in 1981, and Presidents George H. Bush and Barack Obama promised to recognise the Armenian Genocide, there had been no formal acknowledgement of the term by the United States. President Biden’s announcement came on the back of sustained pressure from the US public and legislative chambers.
In 2019, the US House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to recognise the Armenian Genocide, but President Donald Trump asserted that their actions did not represent the view of his administration. Biden’s remarks represent a significant victory for Armenians worldwide, many of whom view the denial of the genocide as an erasure of their collective suffering.
The Armenian Genocide
When he first coined the term genocide in 1944, Polish lawyer Ralph Lemkin explicitly cited the 1915 extermination of the Armenians as a seminal example. Often called the first genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide refers to the physical annihilation of the Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1916. Prior to those events, the empire had a long history of violence and discrimination against its Armenian population, notably during the Hamidian massacres of the late 19th century. In 1915, there were approximately 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. By the end of 1916, between 660,000 and 1.2 million of them were killed, either through massacres or from systemic ill-treatment, exposure and starvation.
While Armenia and its significant diaspora maintain that the events of 1915-16 constitute genocide, Turkey has long contested this definition. Even though it agrees that Armenians were killed during that period, it insists the killings were a legitimate response to a concentrated Armenian attempt to subvert the Ottoman state by conspiring with the Russians during World War 1. In 1982, Turkish diplomat Şükrü Elekdağ stated that the conflict represented a civil war “stemming from an armed uprising of the Armenian minority at a time when the Ottoman state was fighting for survival”. A Turkish official in Washington even attempted to compare the actions of the Ottomans to what the Americans would likely have done had there been German-Americans in Minnesota or Wisconsin revolting on behalf of Hitler during the Second World War.
Emphasising the role played by the Turkish state in propagating this narrative, Alexander Hinton, a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and author of the book, It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the U.S, contends that rejection of Armenian victimhood “became a compulsory diplomatic position of the (Turkish) government.” A government which has historically launched a “multipronged effort to deny the genocide”, he said in an email interaction with indianexpress.com, adding that while Turkey “is by no means the first country to deny its genocidal past” it has done so with “a systematicity that is notable.” Unlike countries like Germany that openly claim responsibility for their acts of genocide, Turkey has used both hard and soft power to influence other governments to reject Armenia’s claim and fall in line with its narrative outlook.
An extension of this disagreement between the Turkish and Armenian state positions is reflected in the scholarly representations of the event. In the American Historical Review, historian Ronald Grigor Suny writes, “although the existing literature produced by Armenian and Turkish historians actually agrees on many of the basic facts, the various authors interpret them so differently that neither explanations of the causes of the events nor a synthetic narrative has been convincingly elaborated.” Suny goes on to note that outside of Turkey, there are “only a small number of defenders” of the Turkish position within academia and that “overwhelmingly, since 2000, publications of non-Armenian academic historians, political scientists, and sociologists… have seen 1915 as one of the classic cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide.”
The failure of Turkish scholars to recognise the genocide can be attributed to a number of different factors ranging from the way the subject is taught in academic institutions to fears of prosecution under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code which makes it illegal to insult Turkey.
Public opinion in Turkey falls very much in line with the official state position, reflecting the attitude ingrained in the majority of the population. In a poll conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, Istanbul, only 9% of the Turkish public believed that the government should acknowledge the genocide. Notable supporters of that opinion such as Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and Booker Prize nominee Elif Shafak, have been summoned to court under Article 301 for mentioning the Armenian Genocide, and in a more extreme and tragic example, veteran journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul over his advocacy for Armenian rights. However, speaking to indianexpress.com via phone call, Peter Balakian, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Professor at Colgate University, stresses that although the Turkish state has actively orchestrated the erasure of Armenian history, it is important to appreciate the “many marvellous citizens on the ground who are courageously fighting for Armenian rights sometimes at the expense of being imprisoned.”
Despite the fact that the UN accepted the act of genocide as an international crime back in 1946, and codified that position in 1948 with the Genocide Convention, it has yet to explicitly recognise the Armenian Genocide. A 1973 UN draft report referred to the events in 1915 as the “first case of genocide in the 20th century” but in the final report published in 1978, that unfortunate distinction was conferred upon the Holocaust instead. The leader of the commission issuing the report later explained that “certain cases had been omitted” because “to delve into the past may reopen old wounds which were now healing.”
Thus far only 30 nations including Brazil, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus and Syria have acknowledged the genocide publicly. In 1965, Uruguay was the first country to do so, even before Armenia itself which was under Soviet rule at the time. The European Parliament accepted the genocide in 1987, with Russia echoing the sentiment in 1995, Greece in 1996, France and Belgium in 1998, and Italy in 2000. Since then, several other European nations have followed suit, with 19 of the 30 countries which currently recognise the Armenian Genocide located within the continent. However, the majority of countries worldwide, including India, still have not formally declared their support for the Armenian cause.
The international denial of the Armenian Genocide began in the early 1920s but in the initial years following the event, several countries had weighed in on the humanitarian consequences of the actions taken by the Ottomans Empire. Notably though, they did so without referring to the term genocide itself, as it had not yet been coined. In 1915, a joint declaration by the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France and Russia, accused the Ottoman Empire of nearly exterminating the Armenian residents of Asia Minor, stating “methodically, the Turkish authorities have proceeded to kill or drive out a whole race.”
In an email conversation with Indianexpress.com, Michelle Tusan, a Professor of History at the University of Las Vegas, notes that in response to the events of 1915, countries like the US, Great Britain and France “bore witness, contributed funds and sent aid workers” to support the Armenians. Their subsequent unwillingness to recognise the genocide she claims, could then be viewed as a moral failure, backed by the demands of geopolitics.
Beyond Western admissions, reports from the time indicate that the Ottomans themselves were willing to own up to the organised elimination of the Armenian people. In his book, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, Henry Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, reaffirmed this notion. In reference to the genocide, he stated “when the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.” Furthermore, in the Istanbul trials of 1919-22, the Ottoman led court seemingly admitted the same when it found members of the Young Turk party guilty of high crimes for their actions against the Greeks and Armenians during the War.
Additionally, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, signed by the Ottoman Sultanate, but never ratified, makes provisions for the return and reestablishment of “Turkish subjects of non-Turkish race,” who had been “forcibly driven from their homes by fear of massacre or any other form of pressure since January 1, 1914.” However, following the successful 1922 Turkish War of Independence, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Treaty of Sèvres was terminated and replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no reference to the atrocities.
Turkish geopolitical influence
Given the vast scholarly consensus and the initial acknowledgment of the massacres, it is interesting to study why the international community has overwhelmingly rejected the notion of the Armenian genocide, particularly during the 20th century. According to Hinton, their actions can be attributed to the notion of realpolitik, both in terms of Turkey’s geostrategic and economic significance, and in terms of the interests of individual states in justifying their own immoral actions. With regard to the latter, he says “if present and possible future perpetrators see others avoiding responsibility for genocide through a strategy of denial, then they have a strong incentive to do the same.” Hinton notes that Hitler famously underscored this point one week before his invasion of Poland when he said “who, after all, speak today of the annihilation of the Armenians.” Tusan builds upon this idea, attributing part of the reason for Great Britain’s silence to its own interests in Asia especially vis-à-vis India. “The British Empire had its own crimes to answer for,” she says, referring in particular to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.
In addition to states having to navigate their own ethical mindfields, genocide denial was influenced by the fact that through much of the 20th century, Turkey was an important partner to the West. According to Dr. Aram Terzyan, a Research Director at the Center for East European and Russian Studies at the Eurasia Institutes, who answered our queries via email,“Armenia is a small state that has acquaintances, rather than friends. Meanwhile, Turkey is a powerful actor in the Middle East and a crucial hub that connects Asia to Europe.”
Although Turkey remained neutral during most of World War 2, it sided with the allied powers once it eventually entered the War. In the immediate post-War era, Turkey’s foreign policy was firmly oriented towards the West. It sent troops to fight in the Korean War and joined NATO in 1952. During the Cold War, it provided military bases to the United States for personnel and equipment, and guaranteed Turkish control over the Bosporus, thereby regulating Moscow’s access to the Mediterranean. Turkey once again proved to be a crucial ally to the West during the War on Terror, participating in counterterrorism efforts and providing Washington with a valuable friend in the Middle East. Its prominent geopolitical role shielded Turkey from harsh criticism over Armenia and ensured that America and most of Europe remained fearful of upsetting the power brokers in Ankara.
Turkey also maintains strong ties with countries in Asia and Africa which allows it to exert influence over genocide recognition in those regions. It has a large diaspora in Australia, Saudi Arabia and much of Central Asia. It possesses an extensive historical connection with sub-Saharan Africa dating back to the 1860s, is actively involved in peacekeeping missions there and provides significant financial aid to the region. It conducts high volumes of trade with countries such as Iraq, Egypt and China and is an important tourist destination for citizens from several North African countries. Turkey has recently increased its presence in the Asia-Pacific, participating in joint dialogues with ASEAN and engaging in extensive diplomatic partnerships with Japan and India. Bangladesh and Rwanda do large amounts of trade with Turkey and Israel considers it to be a vital ally in the Middle East. Speaking about the latter, Terzyan says, “Israel gives great weight to political partnership with Turkey amid the volatile geopolitics of the Middle East. Turkeys closest ally and Armenia’s fiercest foe Azerbaijan is a major purchaser of Israeli weapons, and Israel would not put the lucrative deals with Azerbaijan at risk for the sake of historical justice.”
Reasons for recognition
Given Turkey’s strategic importance relative to Armenia, some may question why so many Western Nations have chosen to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide at all. The answer would probably allude to principles of both morality and realpolitik.
According to Balakian, Western nations could no longer ignore the ethical considerations surrounding the genocide and America in particular felt as though it had a “moral imperative” to deliver on promises made to the Armenian people. From a pragmatic perspective, European countries have long been critical of Turkey’s actions including in Syria where they claimed that the Turkish State Intelligence Agency delivered arms to parts of the country under Islamic rebel control in 2013 and early 2014. According to political scientist Svante E. Cornell in the Middle East Quarterly, “Turkey’s growing profile has been controversial. As Ankara developed increasingly warm ties with rogue states such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan while curtailing its once cordial relations with Israel and using stronger rhetoric against the United States and Europe, it generated often heated debates on whether it has distanced itself from the West.”
The relationship between Turkey and Europe has been based on the principle of reciprocity. Turkey’s bid to join the EU in 2005 was met with significant resistance from EU member states, and subsequently, Turkey proceeded to drift further away from the bloc.
Similarly, in the last few years, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has grown increasingly strained. In a 2019 interview given to the New York Times, then former Vice President Biden described Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an autocrat. Later as President, he approved a government report criticising Turkey for its human rights abuses. In 2020, Trump sanctioned Turkey for its multi-billion dollar acquisition of Russian missile systems and in 2021, Erdoğan accused the US of supporting Kurdish militants following the death of 13 Turkish hostages in Iraq. Additionally, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its willingness to end its over-extension in the Middle East, Turkey no longer has the same geostrategic importance to the United States that it did 20 years ago
Future of US-Turkey relations
There is significant historical evidence that could help one gauge how Turkey may respond to America’s shifting position. In the immediate aftermath of Biden’s statement, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal claimed that his remarks had no legal basis and that Ankara “rejected it, found it unacceptable and condemned it in the strongest terms.” Turkey then proceeded to recall its Ambassador to the United States.
However, Hinton notes that “if Turkey’s experience with other countries who have recognised the genocide, ranging from France and Canada to Russia, are any indication, there won’t be any steep decline in the relationship.” He concedes that “there will no doubt be short term tensions. But both countries have a strategic interest that incentivises continued cooperation.” When France and Germany respectively acknowledged the genocide, Turkey recalled its Ambassador from both nations. However, beyond that, ties between the countries seemed unchanged on the surface. Similarly, Turkey’s feeble response to Putin’s affirmation of the genocide, led former Turkish Ambassador to Russia to remark that Erdoğan’s rhetoric was aimed to appease a nationalist audience at home and should not be taken seriously globally. Ankara is also painfully aware of the consequences of worsening its relationship with the United States after a dispute in 2018 with Trump sparked a Lira crisis and recession.
While Biden’s declaration may not have crucial implications on Turkey’s already declining relationship with the US, Terzyan is aware that there may be some potential ramifications for the Armenian diaspora. Towards that end, he says “feelings of anger and frustration may well translate into further hostilities towards Armenians throughout the world.” Additionally, he points to Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia and China, noting that their “intensifying partnership is likely to send ripples of apprehension into the Western actors.” In the past decade, Beijing and Ankara have collaborated on a series of infrastructure projects as well as deepening their security ties and economic engagements. With regard to Moscow, Terzyan states that the relationship between Russia and Turkey is “characterized by competition and rivalry but also puzzling friendship when it comes to Armenia.” The two countries have maintained a pragmatic relationship, bolstered by the fact that they no longer have competing territorial ambitions and view collaboration as a way of undermining the West. As Turkey continues to drift away from the US, it may find itself coming closer into the orbit of Russia and China.
Ultimately, Biden’s announcement could provide cause for optimism. Balakian affirms that recognition of the genocide by the US is a powerful statement and will be celebrated by Armenian communities worldwide.
It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide by Alexander Laban Hinton
Genocide: Cases, comparisons and contemporary debate by Steven L B Jenson
Truth in telling: Reconciling realities in the genocide of the Ottoman Armenians by Ronald Grigor Suny
What drives Turkish foreign policy? Changes in Turkey by Svante E. Cornell
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