The Armenian Genocide, in History and Politics: What to Know

At the risk of infuriating Turkey, President Biden formally announced on Saturday that the United States regards the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks more than a century ago to be a genocide — the most monstrous of crimes.

Mr. Biden was the first American president to make such an announcement, breaking with predecessors who did not wish to antagonize Turkey, a NATO ally and a strategically pivotal country straddling Europe and the Middle East.

The announcement carries enormous symbolic weight, equating the anti-Armenian violence with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia and Rwanda.

Use of the term is a moral slap at President Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey, a fervent denier of the genocide. He has fulminated at other leaders, including Pope Francis, for describing the Armenian killings that way.

The violence against Armenians began during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, which included an area that is now Armenia, a landlocked country ringed by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Starting in 1915, the Ottomans, aligned with Germany in World War I, sought to prevent Armenians from collaborating with Russia and ordered mass deportations. As many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians died from starvation, killings by Ottoman Turk soldiers and the police, and forced exoduses south into what is now Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

About 500,000 Armenians survived, and many eventually scattered into Russia, the United States and elsewhere in what became one of the world’s most far-flung diasporas.

Many historians now consider the deaths of the Armenians to be the first genocide of the 20th century. For many Armenians, it is a scar carried down through generations, still evoking strong emotions, aggravated by Turkey’s insistence that the genocide is a fiction.

Genocide is generally defined as the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political or cultural group, with the intent to destroy that group.

The term did not exist until 1944, when a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, combined the Greek word for race or tribe, “geno,” with “-cide,” from the Latin word for killing. Mr. Lemkin said the killings of the Armenians and the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis shaped his thinking.

While genocide was not yet a legal concept when the Nuremberg tribunal put Nazis on trial after World War II, those proceedings helped lay the groundwork for courts that would later prosecute genocide.

The term was incorporated into a 1948 United Nations treaty that made genocide a crime under international law.

Although partisans in a number of current conflicts have often used the term to discredit and stigmatize opponents, genocide prosecutions are rare. Special courts were created to prosecute crimes including the 1975-1979 genocide in Cambodia, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and atrocities including genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

The International Criminal Court, which was created in 2002 in part to prosecute such crimes, has only one pending genocide case — Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, former president of Sudan, who is wanted on two warrants for crimes including genocide in the Darfur region from 2003 to 2008. The court cannot prosecute crimes committed before its inception.

The International Court of Justice, the highest court of the United Nations, ruled in January 2020 that Myanmar must take action to protect Rohingya Muslims, who have been killed and driven from their homes in what the country’s accusers have called a campaign of genocide. The ruling, which has no enforcement power, was the outcome of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Muslim countries that wanted the court to condemn Myanmar for violating the genocide treaty.

Turkey’s government has acknowledged that atrocities were committed during that period but has argued that a large number of Turks were also killed and that the Armenian casualty figures are wildly exaggerated. A succession of Turkish leaders have denounced the genocide as a falsehood intended to undermine their account of the creation of modern Turkey.

Turkey’s denial of genocide is ingrained into Turkish society. Writers who have dared to use the term have been prosecuted under Section 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which bans “denigrating Turkishness.”

The denial is taught at an early age, with school textbooks calling the genocide a lie, describing the Armenians of that period as traitors and declaring the actions by the Ottoman Turks as “necessary measures” against Armenian separatism.

Some have come close. President Ronald Reagan tangentially referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in an April 22, 1981, statement commemorating the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

But American presidents have generally avoided describing the killings this way to avoid any backlash from Turkey that would endanger its cooperation in regional conflicts or diplomacy.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden signaled his intentions a year ago in a speech on April 24, Armenia’s official day of remembrance of the genocide. He used the term “Armenian genocide” and asserted that “we must never forget or remain silent about this horrific and systematic campaign of extermination.” And in recent years, bipartisan anger toward Mr. Erdogan has grown. In 2019, the House and Senate passed resolutions calling the Armenian killings a genocide.

As vice president in the Obama administration, Mr. Biden never enjoyed an easy relationship with Mr. Erdogan, an autocratic leader who gave him an icy reception in August 2016. The two met a month after the failed coup in Turkey that Mr. Erdogan blamed on a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States.

Perhaps more important, Mr. Erdogan’s closeness to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Turkey’s testy relations with other NATO allies and its purchase of Russian antiaircraft missiles have irritated the Biden administration and both houses of Congress. And Turkey’s increasing economic problems under Mr. Erdogan may have made him less likely to retaliate against any American declaration that offends him.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Erdogan held no substantive discussions for the first three months of Mr. Biden’s term, an indication that the White House ascribes less importance to Mr. Erdogan as a partner.

Mr. Erdogan had lobbied hard to prevent the announcement, but when the two leaders spoke on Friday, they agreed only to an “effective management of disagreements,” according to a summary of the conversation provided by the White House.

About Mr. Biden’s decision on the genocide, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a Turkish media interview in recent days that “if the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”

According to a tally by the Armenian National Institute, a Washington-based group, at least 30 countries have done so.

The answer is more complicated concerning the United Nations, which played a central role in the treaty that made genocide a crime but has not taken a position on what happened in 1915 — 30 years before the global body was created. The website of its Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, in describing the origin of the term genocide, does not mention Armenia. António Guterres, the secretary-general, has skirted the issue.

Asked on Thursday about Mr. Guterres’s view, his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said, “We have no comment, as a general rule, on events that took place before the founding of the U.N.” Genocide, Mr. Dujarric said, “needs to be determined by an appropriate judicial body, as far as the U.N. is concerned.”

Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

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