Armenian Genocide and International Relations: 1915-2015 by Vicken Cheterian

23 April 2015

The public opinion in Europe has heard about the Genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, yet they often know very little next to it. This lack of knowledge is not accidental. The state responsible of the crime – Turkey, the inheritor of the Ottoman Empire – negated that it committed wrongdoing against its own Armenian citizens. The extermination of 1.2 million and the deportation of another million were attributed to military necessity. Moreover, the victims themselves became the centre of accusation, as Turkish authorities denounced them as “rebellious” and of having collaborated with the enemy during the war.

What distinguishes the Armenian Genocide from other cases is the fact that it remains unrecognized. It therefore provides a rich material to study what happens if a major crime takes place, and our international political system behaves as if nothing has happened? This was the question I researched in my recent book Open Wounds, Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide, and came to stunning conclusions.1

First consequence I discovery is that justice is not only an abstract, moral category, but it has very concrete, tangible effects. The Turkish Republic, by not recognizing that a major crime had happened against its Armenian citizens, continued to apply policies to destroy its Armenian population. When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 there were 300’000 Armenians in Turkey, when the total population of the country was 14 million. Today, the Armenians hardly make 60’000 out of a population approaching 75 million. This dramatic drop of Armenians – which remains the largest non-Muslim community – is the result of continuous harassment and pogroms that the government has continued to use against religious minorities. The September 1955 pogroms in Istanbul, which targeted the Greek and Armenian populations, is one such event. The 1974 confiscation of 1400 real estate belonging to Armenian foundations in Istanbul – schools, churches, hospitals, is another.

In East Anatolia the presence of Armenian civilization was systematically erased. Remaining Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam, Turkified or Kurdified. Thousands of churches and monasteries, which served as centres for transmission of culture, were either turned into mosques, or destroyed. A handful of churches survive in remote villages, are used as stables by the local peasants.

What is the most surprising is that Turkish antagonism towards Armenia and its population continues until today. Following the collapse of USSR and the emergence of independent Armenia, Ankara refused to establish diplomatic relations, and has imposed a blockade on this landlocked country, crippling its economy, and bleeding its population.

Second consequence, if a state celebrates criminals of war as national heroes, then crimes become legitimate conflict resolution mechanism. Once the Christians disappeared after the Genocide and deportations, the Turkish state started using same methods against the “new” minority, the Kurds. The Kemalist state simply considered that Kurds did not exist; they were branded as “mountain Turks”, and discrimination against their rights continue until today. Kurdish protest against such policies or revolts were repressed by force, followed by massacres of civilian populations and their mass displacement, as it happened in Dersim in 1937-38, or following the PKK guerrilla attacks in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Denial of the crime has equally consequences on Turkish democracy and rule of law. The Turkish state continued to keep the property confiscated from the Armenians, whether it was real estate, capital, or large estates belonging to the Armenian Church. Those confiscated property were distributed over a new “Muslim bourgeoisie” making the entrepreneurial class continuously dependent on the state, with huge consequences on rule of law and transparency. For decades, Turkish state has invested huge efforts in denialism had huge negative effect on freedom of speech where anyone challenging the official line was persecuted, as the case of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink illustrates. In the last few years, the Turkish liberal intelligentsia has realized this fact, and today is struggling for the return if the memory of the Armenians as intimate part of democratization struggle within their society.

Turkish denial of its crime of Genocide could not have sustained without international indifference, or even cooperation. The project of city of Geneva to erect a memorial to the Armenian victims, which came under heavy opposition from Ankara, but also surprisingly from Bern, did not cause any reaction from Geneva’s large human rights community. This “banality of indifference” only encourages the policy of Genocide denial, which is the last stage in a crime of Genocide.

Yet, Genocide denial continues to pollute international relations. After one hundred years it is time to break this silence, this international indifference. We owe this not only for the memory of Armenian victims, and millions of other innocent victims of past wars, but also to future generations. Otherwise, what kind of justice can we promise to innocent victims of on-going conflicts today?