On the 4th of March 2010, a US Congressional Committee was given the task of deciding whether or not to recognise the Armenian Genocide. They voted 23 to 22 in conviction that the killings were in fact an act of genocide despite discouragement from the Obama government. The question arising here is why nearly 100 years after the events; governments are only just recognising what happened in Armenia as genocide. So why are they reluctant to speak up and label the massacres as genocide?
Article Two of the UN Convention on Genocide of December 1948 describes genocide as carrying out acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group".
During the years of 1915-1917 it is estimated that around 600,000 Armenians were massacred through acts such as death marches, mass burnings, deportations, drowning and poisoning. This does not include the 25 concentration camps set up to exterminate the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire. It is also forgotten that the Armenians were not the only victims within this genocide; it is the conviction of the International Association of Genocide Scholars that the Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the Empire between 1914 and 1923 constituted genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian and Anatolian Greeks. The Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the killings as genocide on the basis that ‘there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian people’. So what does constitute an attempt to destroy a people?
20 Countries have recognised the killings as genocide including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy and Russia, yet controversially the European Union has said Turkish acceptance of the Armenian genocide is not a condition for Turkey's entry into the bloc. America has also not wanted to recognise the killings as genocide, despite one of Obama’s election campaign promises being to identify the killings.
So why are countries reluctant to acknowledge the genocide? Many countries are reluctant to recognise the events as genocide for diplomatic reasons as Turkey takes offence to any country that recognises the events officially as genocide. In 2006, France held a parliamentary vote which would make it a crime to deny that the Armenians suffered genocide. The bill never became law, but Turkey consequently cut off all military ties with France.
The decision that has now been taken by the US Congressional Committee on the 4th of March 2010 has led to Turkey now withdrawing their ambassador from Washington, despite the fact that the Obama government recognised that the decision of the Congressional Committee to acknowledge the events as genocide could not only jeopardise USA and Turkish relations but also the fragile peace between Armenia and Turkey.
The fragile relationship between Turkey and Armenia is also a significant factor within this debate. After years of hostility and war, the two countries signed a pact (which is not binding and has not been ratified) in 2006 to open diplomatic ties and their shared border and some countries fear recognising the genocide could increase hostility between the two countries.
What does the British government say? Britain’s stance is currently that ‘the events of 1915 should be left to historians.’ The regional assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all now recognise the genocide which begs the question why not the national parliament? The same argument lies within the USA; as 42 out of 50 states have officially recognised the genocide, why is it so difficult for the federal government?
It would be unthinkable for any country not to recognise the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide or the Srebrenica Massacres, so who decides what constitutes a genocide? Should it be about governments and diplomacy, or about people and victims? And why in this modern age are politicians still disinclined to use the ‘G’ word when addressing conflicts such as Darfur?
By Chloe Smith