Vicken Cheterian is a Geneva-based author, journalist and media specialist, whose latest book Open Wounds, Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide has just been published by Hurst (See more details at the bottom of this piece). He recently attended the Responsibility 2015 conference in New York dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Turks.
Armenians being deported by Turkish government in 1915.
Geoffrey Robertson started his keynote talk by telling the story of William Robertson his great uncle, a soldier in the British army who was sent to fight against the Ottoman armies. Hardly 24 hours after he was disembarked at Gallipoli and with his comrades charged on the Ottoman defences, the bullet of a sniper or a machine-gunner killed him. Robertson told this story to distinguish this killing of a soldier in a war, and the annihilation of the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire by the orders of their own state.
For Robertson, although the death of his uncle as well as millions of other soldiers killed in the “Great War” was tragic and painful there is no point to commemorate it since they were “lawfully killed”. Yet, he added, the forced deportations and massacres of hundreds of thousands Armenian and other Christian civilians – elderly, women, children forced on death marches to the Syrian desert – is a crime against humanity, that were never punished. This event needs to be remembered, Robertson insisted.
The choice of Robertson to deliver the opening speech at Responsibility 2015 conference in New York dedicated to the 100 anniversary of the Genocide of the Armenians organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF or Tashnaks) is symbolically charged. He has long career in defending sensitive human rights cases, and in 2006 he was the judge heading the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, which indicted former president Charles Taylor for war crimes.
Geoffrey Robertson (centre), Hannibal Travis (right) and Antranig Kasbarian (left).
Most recently, Robertson represented Armenia against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels, as well as authored a book (An Inconvenient Genocide) on the Armenian killings. Therefore, his presence symbolically bridged between the annihilation of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, with current concerns on mass violations of human rights and crimes against humanity.
We all know that mass killings of Armenians happened, but we hardly know anything else. What happened in 1915, and how is it relevant to us today? What makes the Armenian Genocide important is that it is the first “modern genocide”. In pre-modern times invading armies did massacre local populations and destroy their civilizations – whether it was the Roman armies destroying Carthage, or the invading Mongols who destroyed Baghdad. What makes the Armenian case the prototype of modern Genocides is that it is the government itself that turns against a part of its own population, declaring it as “undesirable” and decides to annihilate them physically and erase their cultural traces. Under the shadow of World War I – which the Ottomans joined by their own will on the side of the German Empire – the government declared Armenians, all Armenians, as traitors and rebels. First, intellectuals were arrested and executed, second men serving in the army were disarmed and executed, and third remaining civilians were deported to concentration camps in Der Ez-Zor, where they were massacred en masse.
Armenian Genocide is the prototype of modern genocides. There is growing scholarly literature showing the relationship between the Genocide of the Armenians, and Nazi crimes in the Holocaust, how German nationalists took the “successes” of the Young Turks in getting rid of their Christian minorities, Armenians but also Assyrians and Greeks, as a model for them to create a “homogenous” German homeland by massacring Jews, Slavs and other populations. Stalinist regime deported and massacred large part of its population, based on class or ethnic criteria, then there was Cambodia, Rwanda.
What distinguishes the Genocide of the Armenian from the Jewish Holocaust or the Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example, is that in the case of the Armenians the perpetrator does not recognize its crime. For a century, Turkey first tried to erase the memory of the Armenians, and the raise their traces – from the 2,500 churches and 500 monasteries in 1914 only 40 active Armenian churches, and from 2.2 million Armenians only 60,000 Armenians remain in Turkey today. Then, when Armenians continued to struggle Turkey responded by arguing that the deportations (Turkey argues that it was only “relocation”) of populations were for military needs, that in fact it is the Armenians who should be accused because they were rebellious and collaborated with the enemy.
Human rights should be the concern of all of us. If we tolerate violations in one place, this could serve as justification for violations elsewhere, or for use of force out of frustration for lack of justice. Then what about closing our eyes for mass murder on the scale of genocide – the crime against an entire race?
Hayg Oshagan is one of the organizers of the conference. He was self confident about the struggle of his part ARF and the Armenians in general. “In the last few years ARF has put its stress on reparations rather than on recognition as it was before. Recognition as an issue has been advanced and successes achieved,” he said. What kind of reparations? The first step is a legal act to demand the Turkish government to return the church properties that were confiscated back in 1915, and mostly destroyed. “This could be a first step,” Oshagan added.
The commemorations of the 100 anniversary of the Genocide are taking place in a mixed emotional atmosphere. On the one hand there is a feeling of success, that even after one hundred years the struggle for justice continues. What was especially encouraging was the participation of a number of Turkish and Kurdish scholars who are working today on the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, recognizing that there can be no rule of law and genuine democracy without addressing the fundamental sin on which the Turkish Republic was built. But at the same time there is apprehension with what is going on in the Middle East where governments and armed groups have taken entire civilian populations as the target of their destructive policies.
During one of the panels looking at artistic works inspired by the genocide – whether photography, novels or plays – one author reminded the audience that we should not give up, that the struggle for memory and for justice should continue. “Never forget that we are the majority, and they are a small minority” he insisted. By “we” he meant innocent civilians victimized by “them” the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
On April 23, 2014, Turkish president Erdogan made an announcement addressed to the Armenians where he talked about conveying his “condolences”. Although the message was bewildering – putting on the same level the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators – nevertheless for the first time in 99 years a Turkish leader had reached the conclusion that the Armenian had suffered. (Hurriyet Daily News article on Erdogan’s statement on the Armenian issue). There was hope that the Turkish leader would take additional, necessary steps to address this greatest injustice. But today, it seems that what interested the Turkish leaders was not justice, but rather public relations.
“Turkey has a big diversion plan,” Robertson said. He was referring to Turkish government plans to organize a big celebration of Ottoman victories against allied forces in Gallipoli in 1915. Traditionally, Turkey commemorated this battle on March 18, but this year it decided to make a big event on April 24, when the rest of the world will be remembering the Genocide of the Armenians. Denial is the last stage of Genocide, historians remind us, and both denial and the crime are continuing to this date.
About Vicken Cheterian’s book: Open Wounds, Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide, Hurst, 2015.